[Disclaimer: when I was last in England, the author bought me a soda. I'm not quite sure that that constitutes a conflict of interest, sodas being relatively inexpensive even in England, but full transparency and all that...]
The title of Lloyd Shepherd's fourth and (apparently) final entry in his Charles Horton historical mysteries yokes together modern and ancient, rational and supernatural, law and evil. But these binaries turn out to be not so neat after all. At the same time, the novel also cleverly subverts some of the reader's own expectations, given the series' mix of historical fiction, Gothic horror, and murder mystery. All of the Horton novels so far have rung changes on the imperial Gothic mode: English characters go abroad seeking glory (theoretically) and profit (actually), commit a crime, and then bring back the supernatural ramifications of that act to England itself. Thus, believing in their own success, the English instead find themselves importing their own greed and colonial violence under very different forms. This alternate history of empire, though, exists in tandem with the very rational history of our empirical friend Horton, whose knack for interpreting a crime scene helps usher in the birth of modern policing. (In fact, Horton--identified as a "detective" for the first time--is now something of a pre-Holmesian celebrity, with a fan club that includes a reasonably helpful Charles Lamb.) Significantly, Horton has spent the past three novels in a state of some confusion, never quite grasping the secrets lying just beyond his investigations.
The Detective and the Devil, though, inverts the plot structure of the previous three novels. Instead, it opens with a man from the Netherlands, Jacobus Aakster, robbing John Dee's English household in search of a mysterious Arabic manuscript--which, as is explained much later, Dee could not read--for the nascent Dutch East India Company. After memorizing and destroying the manuscript, Aakster establishes a very profitable business indeed by doing the...thing...(not explained for some time) contained therein--a business that continues down several generations, right through the emergence of England's own East India Company. (Enter our heroes.) The ancient manuscript, which passes from "a rogue Janissary" to a "Jewish merchant from Portugal" (291) to Dee, before being stolen by Aakster, may be very Gothic--found manuscripts being central to the classic Gothic tradition--but its transit to England doesn't involve the same criminality marking the imports in Shepherd's earlier novels. Instead, in a nice irony, a representative of a foreign empire violates English space and then turns himself (and all of his descendants) into this hotly-desired object; the family's centuries-long residence on St. Helena, moreover, puts them first in the trammels of the Dutch and then the English East India Companies, but in the interests of safety, the keepers of the secret cannot return to England (or the Netherlands, for that matter). This, too, is very Gothic. As are all the returning characters and crimes from the previous novels, as though past murders were returning, in good supernatural fashion, to haunt a too-complacent present.
There is, however, yet another catch. Shepherd repeatedly alludes, both explicitly and implicitly, to Shakespeare's The Tempest, which many critics have understood as a reflection on early modern imperialism (guy shows up, takes over island, subjugates inhabitants including the monstrous Other, etc.). Horton watches The Tempest; there's an actual (and centuries-old...) Caliban on St. Helena, which is, of course, an island; there are multiple allusions to wizardry, starting with John Dee himself. But there's one more aspect of The Tempest that's important. As I shall be conjuring up some spoilers, let's head below the fold.