One snowy night in the bleak midwinter of 1893, a seamstress named Esther Tull turns up at the London residence of Lord Strythe. Carew, her employer's butler, takes her up to the workroom on the top floor. She informs him that the elaborate sewing job she has been tasked with will take her into the wee small hours. Unbeknown to Carew, Esther has recently done some intricate needlework of her own: She has stitched a cryptic six-word message in coarse red thread into her skin. Alone in the room, she swabs her wound and admires her efforts, then steps out onto the window ledge and leaps to her death.
Irish author Paraic O'Donnell grabs his reader's attention with his strange and atmospheric opener and doesn't let go. "The House on Vesper Sands" is his second novel, a mock-Victorian tour de force that dexterously blends the drama of Dickens, the sensationalism of Wilkie Collins, and the mystery of Conan Doyle, with added chills and humor poured into the mix for good measure.
Having set the scene, O'Donnell brings in the first of two protagonists. Cambridge student Gideon Bliss is summoned to London by his uncle "on a matter of urgency." Finding no one home, he takes shelter in a church where he encounters Angie Tatton, a former charge of his benevolent relative. She is also the woman who once captured Gideon's heart. Now he finds her lying on cold flagstones barely dressed, half-petrified, and raving incoherently about black air and brightness. Before Gideon can get any sense out of her he is assaulted. When he comes to, she is gone.
The book's second lead character is Octavia Hillingdon, a society columnist who yearns to showcase her journalistic talents in meatier investigative reporting. The opportunity arises when her editor commissions her to write both a profile of Lord Strythe and an article on the Spiriters, a group of "shadowy malefactors" who are currently terrorizing Whitechapel.
Plucky, feisty Octavia throws herself into her assignment by relying on her tried-and-tested method of encouraging "the right sort of people to say the wrong sort of thing." Gideon's determination to track down Angie leads to him masquerading as a police sergeant and joining forces with Inspector Cutter of Scotland Yard. Octavia and Gideon work at opposite ends to uncover the truth behind Esther's violent death, Strythe's sudden vanishing act, and the disappearance of so many women. In time, their inquiries in London bring them to the Kent coast and into the mysterious house on Vesper Sands.
O'Donnell keeps his reader gripped with his fast pace, ingenious plotting and narrative twists and turns. His re-created world of costermongers and eel vendors, gin shops and boardinghouses, gentlemen's clubs and séance salons is vividly authentic. Cutter's punchy dialogue elicits laughs while the soul-stealing and "half shades" imbue the proceedings with a welcome supernatural streak. A fiendishly entertaining winter's tale.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The House on Vesper Sands
By: Paraic O'Donnell.
Publisher: Tin House, 408 pages, $26.95.