“The House on Vesper Sands” by Paraic O’Donnell – melodramatic, supernatural late Victorian detective fiction

This is my review of The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell.

Naïve Cambridge undergraduate Gideon Bliss is intrigued and quite pleased to receive a request for help from his normally cold and distant uncle and guardian, the do-gooding clergymen Herbert Neuilly who devotes himself to assisting vulnerable young women fallen on hard times in London. These include Angela Tatton, to whom Gideon has clearly become attached. Arrived in London, Gideon is puzzled to find that his uncle is not at his lodgings: instead, he comes across Angela in strange circumstances which imply she has been the victim of a bizarre attack, before she too disappears. Meanwhile, the feisty would-be journalist Octavia Hillingdon cycles round London trying to find out more about the enigmatic Lord Strythe, who has aroused her suspicions.

If you like the sound of late Victorian detective fiction served up with dollops of melodrama, farce, implausible coincidences and supernatural happenings, this novel may appeal to you. It is an intertwined imitation of Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, but a pale one. I was encouraged to read it by a glowing review in The Guardian, but was disappointed from the outset by the very mannered style and some laboured descriptions, although I accept this may be an attempt to recapture a Victorian approach to writing. For the mainly exaggerated and two-dimensional characters there can be no excuse.

I accept that Gideon and Octavia are quite likeable, there are some amusing exchanges, as between the long-winded Gideon and the gruff Inspector Cutter, and the author’s poetry sometimes creeps in to good effect: “rippled with lazing dust”; “a soundless bend of wind”. Even the title, “The House at Vesper Sands”, has an alluring ring. However, I sympathise with the reader who could not believe that Octavia would ride to an evening ball on her bicycle, presumably in what would pass for evening dress. I could not believe that, desperate for shelter, the penniless Gideon would crash into an unfamiliar church where Angela Tatton just happened to be lying in a strange state by the altar. I could not credit that, while Octavia was attending a séance in the dark she could either take notes or conduct a detailed “information dump” conversation with her friend “Elf”, Lord Hartington, who had arrived late, having located her whereabouts. I persevered to Chapter XXII, by which time the undeniable presence of the supernatural became too much, causing me to fast-forward to the end of a book which failed to engage either my interest fully or my emotions at all.

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