Blood and Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

January 18, 2019

June, 1781. An unidentified body hangs upon a hook at Deptford Dock – horribly tortured and branded with a slaver’s mark.

Some days later, Captain Harry Corsham – a war hero embarking upon a promising parliamentary career – is visited by the sister of an old friend. Her brother, passionate abolitionist Tad Archer, had been about to expose a secret that he believed could cause irreparable damage to the British slaving industry. He’d said people were trying to kill him, and now he is missing . . .

To discover what happened to Tad, Harry is forced to pick up the threads of his friend’s investigation, delving into the heart of the conspiracy Tad had unearthed. His investigation will threaten his political prospects, his family’s happiness, and force a reckoning with his past, risking the revelation of secrets that have the power to destroy him.

And that is only if he can survive the mortal dangers awaiting him in Deptford…

Over the last few years I have been reading more and more crime fiction. I particularly enjoy when the book in question has a historic setting. One such book is Blood and Sugar, a new novel from Laura Shepherd-Robinson set in the dark underbelly of 18th century London.

There is a conflict within our protagonist, Harry Horsham, which makes him a little bit more intriguing than your average detective. He is the toast of London society, seemingly on the fast track to a high-profile political career, but he suffers from a fatal flaw; he has principles. Corsham won’t be bribed, and he refuses to look the other way. He is repeatedly told to just walk away from investigating his friend’s murder but exhibits a dogged tenacity, refusing to quit. Even if it means he might suffer from the potential fallout of his findings he keeps moving forward. The last meeting between Corsham and the victim, Tad Archer, ended badly and Corsham is driven by guilt. Uncovering the who, what and why of his friend’s murder is the only way the good captain knows how to try and make amends.

I tend to find my favourite crime novels are the ones with a slightly broken main character.

Corsham is a soldier and a gentleman, bound by the restrictions of the time period. He is a staunch abolitionist, believing quite rightly that every person has the right to be treated equally. The only problem is that the entire system is against him. The authorities are not interested in the killing of a rabble rouser or the plight of slaves. Corsham has to deal with imperialism and the ignorant at every turn. Setting the novel at this point in history gives the author the chance to explore a whole host of ideas; the politics of the age, attitudes towards sexuality, gender and class differences are all touched upon.

Blood and Sugar is set during a time known as the Age of Enlightenment, which I think in some ways makes the story that much more harrowing.  While philosophy, economics and science were moving forward in leaps and bounds, indigenous people were continuing to be treated abhorrently. Companies in the United Kingdom were making money by treating other races as little more than beasts of burden. Kudos to the author for her approach to dealing with this shameful period of British history, nothing is sugar coated or shied away from. I’m a firm believer that the best fiction should always educate and inform the reader, especially when it comes to the subjects that we need to learn from.

One of the things I really liked about Blood and Sugar was Shepherd-Robinson’s evocative descriptions of London and the surrounding areas. During the course of his investigation Horsham moves from well-tended avenues and elegant townhouses to shabby dockyards, disused warehouses and back alley brothels. In some places there is a thin veneer of civility but lurking just underneath that the capital is a grubby, violent place.  Slaves and ex-slaves are treated with little or no respect and the vast majority of the upper-classes are, often as not, hypocrites. Trying to uncover a murder, and the conspiracy that sits behind it, is not easy when everything conspires against you.

I’d recommend this novel to those who enjoy their crime fiction suitably dark and atmospheric. Fans of the novels Mayhem, and Murder by Sarah Pinborough, will likely find lots to appreciate in the pages of Blood and Sugar. Blending together the best elements from historical and crime genres it was easy to get drawn into the compelling narrative.

My musical recommendation to accompany Blood and Sugar is the tense and often sinister soundtrack to the BBC drama Taboo by Max Richter. It captures the same tone as the novel and makes for a perfect match. In a nice bit of cosmic synchronicity Taboo, and Blood and Sugar are set at roughly the same time period. That probably explains why they complement one another so well.

Blood and Sugar is published by Pan Macmillan and available from 24th January. This is an impressive debut* that I can highly recommend. If you enjoy historic crime fiction I would advise you give this a go.

*I had to keep reminding myself this was a debut. The plot whips along with such confident flair.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *