PARAIC O’DONNELL’s second novel is a complex Dickensian story set in the late 19th century, with many characters and layers of plot originating from, or connected to, the house on Vesper Sands, country home of the sinister Lord Strythe.
The action begins at his London mansion in Mayfair, where Miss Tull, seamstress, has arrived on a snowy evening to complete an evening coat; she is in great pain, though we are not told why. She throws phials of Strythe’s mind-bending drugs and then herself from a window, and her dead body reveals that embroidered into her skin is “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord”. (The novel’s six sections are headed Requiem Aeternam, Kyrie, Dies Irae, Sanctus, In Paradisum, and Lux Perpetua.)
When Inspector Cutter of Scotland Yard and his assistant Gideon Bliss begin their investigations, they meet the well-connected Octavia Hillingdon, cousin of Lord Strythe. She’s a reporter for the Mayfair Gazette, also investigating the death and adding to this shocking break with Victorian mores by rushing on her bicycle through London’s filthy cobbled streets. O’Donnell’s recreation of 1890s London is solidly impressive and yet light-handed: we see, feel, and smell the city as an integral part of the quick-moving detective story.
The secondary theme of the novel, the connection of poor Angie Tatton with the mysterious Spiriters, introduces the Victorian supernatural: the palm of Angie’s hand becomes translucent if a candle is held behind it, and her dramatic fading from sight at the end of the novel in the garden of the house on Vesper Sands is chilling. This particular theme of O’Donnell’s book will leave cynics like me unconvinced but full of admiration for the hypnotic vividness of his depiction of a lost aspect of Victorian life.
The House on Vesper Sands is a remarkable novel, utterly haunting from the first paragraph to the last. And how fitting that a lost portrait of the young Charles Dickens has been recovered just as this most Dickensian of stories is published.
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.
The House on Vesper Sands
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50