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
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'