Wednesday 14 November 2018

A facsimile of a classic Victorian mystery with razor-sharp wit

Crime: The House on Vesper Sands, Paraic O'Donnell, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, trade paperback, 372 pages, €17

The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O'Donnell
The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O'Donnell
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Dublin novelist Paraic O'Donnell follows up his critically lauded debut with this imaginative and superbly written historical murder-mystery, set in 1893 England.

The House on Vesper Sands opens with a bizarre suicide: seamstress Esther throws herself from the house of Lord Strythe, a strange, powerful nobleman. She has embroidered a Biblical verse on her chest.

Divinity student Gideon Bliss arrives in London from Cambridge after an alarming letter from his kindly clergyman uncle. He comes across Angela Tatton, a young woman he knew from a previous visit, sick and delirious in a church. Gideon is knocked out; Angela has vanished when he awakens.

At Uncle Herbert's lodgings, he meets Inspector Cutter of Scotland Yard. Through humorously befuddled thought-processes, Gideon pretends to be a policeman, in the hope of finding Angela.

Meanwhile, journalist Octavia Hillingdon wants to investigate Strythe. Her editor insists she report on the Spiriters instead: wild rumours of black magic, abduction and ritual killing are sweeping parts of London.

Gideon and Cutter begin looking into Esther's death, which links to another woman's murder, then a man's suspicious death, then Octavia's discoveries about Strythe, who has disappeared. Eventually, we hurtle towards a showdown at the titular House on Vesper Sands, his lordship's second-home in Kent.

The blurb describes it as "the love child of Dickens and Conan Doyle", and the influence of both is evident. He's a better prose writer than either, however; The House on Vesper Sands is elegantly crafted and paced, and - rare for historical fiction - consistently funny.

Cutter is the source of most of the comedy, with a tongue sharper than a cut-throat's blade which he's ever-willing to use on poor Gideon. They develop an uneasy comradeship, like the ill-matched heroes of a buddy-buddy cop movie: a 19th-century Riggs and Murtaugh. (Expectant mothers will also get a kick out of a coroner named Braxton Hicks.)

The story is well-plotted, with unexpected but welcome supernatural elements. And while O'Donnell has clearly researched thoroughly, he wears his learning lightly.

For all that, though, The House on Vesper Sands lacks something. It's a clever and well-done pastiche, a smooth facsimile of classic Victoriana, but I'm not sure it's much more. That spark of magic or authenticity isn't there. An enjoyable book - but also inert somehow, lifeless, too proficient for its own good.

 

Darragh McManus' novels include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through' and 'The Polka Dot Girl'

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