Paraic O’Donnell’s The House on Vesper Sands is a Victorian thriller that blends gothic, supernatural and comedic elements to genre-defying results. While it certainly works well as a mystery, its humor is reminiscent of the late Terry Pratchett, and its satirical tone will appeal to readers who aren’t typically among the historical mystery crowd.
Set in 1893 London, The House on Vesper Sands opens with a bizarre and eerie suicide. A seamstress jumps from the window of her patron Lord Strythe’s house after stitching a cryptic message into her own skin. The case falls into the lap of Inspector Cutter, whose dry humor and barbed tongue set him apart from his dull-witted counterparts. Along with Cutter is Gideon Bliss, an ecclesiastical scholar impersonating a police sergeant. Bliss is investigating the disappearance of his uncle and of a match girl named Angie Tatton. He believes that these vanishings may be connected to the suicide, and though often comically hapless and earnest, is determined to solve the puzzle. Cutter and Bliss’s double act is complemented by Octavia Hillingdon, a feminist and journalist looking for a story more compelling than her usual society page assignments.
Many disparate strands come together to form this mystery—the aforementioned suicide, the disappearance of several working-class women and the bizarre actions of the mysterious Lord Strythe. Initially the setup for these different threads feels a bit tedious, but once they are woven together the pacing picks up considerably, to the extent that the end of the novel is explosively compelling.
While many historical mysteries focus on the upper class (genteel ladies solving murders or intrepid police inspectors navigating the world of the ton), O’Donnell examines the world of working-class Victorian London and champions those who inhabit it. The missing women here are all working class and overlooked, but their plight is no less important to Cutter or Octavia. It’s a vividly painted atmosphere that feels so real to the reader, you can almost smell the gin and coal dust.
The characters and humor that make The House on Vesper Sands shine would lend themselves well to a series—this novel is sure to make readers hunger for more.