And comic der­ring-do in Vic­to­rian Lon­don

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - BOOKS - ANNE CUN­NING­HAM

“My soul doth mag­nify the Lord” — on to her own chest. Through a se­ries of er­rors, Gideon Bliss finds him­self present at the mo­ment of this grim dis­cov­ery. He’s tak­ing notes for po­lice In­spec­tor Cut­ter (who gets all the fun­ni­est lines), as Bliss him­self has been mis­taken for a sergeant and can’t quite find the right mo­ment to cor­rect this blun­der.

There is fur­ther high dud­geon and der­ring-do nearby in Ashen­den House, where May­fair Gazette colum­nist Olivia Hilling­don spots the same Lord Stry­the beat­ing a hasty re­treat from a so­ci­ety soiree held in his hon­our.

Miss Hilling­don’s been com­mis­sioned to write a piece about the Spirit­ers, a se­cret so­ci­ety of male­fac­tors re­puted to be ‘steal­ing the souls’ of im­pov­er­ished young women around Whitechapel. She’d rather be, as her ed­i­tor puts it, “pot-bang­ing about the in­equities of our so­cial or­der or the plight of the work­ing poor” than in­ves­ti­gat­ing the shenani­gans of an un­known cho­rus of black-hearted holy rollers, but a gig’s a gig.

Speak­ing of holy rollers, there’s quite an ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal leit­mo­tif threaded through the plot. It con­sists of six parts taken from the for­mat of the re­quiem mass, from the Re­quiem Aeter­nam through to the Lux per­petua. These al­lu­sions to the sa­cred add an ironic twist of dark­ness as the prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters find them­selves fight­ing the forces of evil. In­spec­tor Cut­ter’s not im­pressed with the sa­cred, how­ever, not even with kindly vi­cars like Gideon’s un­cle, whom he ad­mits “was a great fel­low for good works, by all ac­counts. For­ever ladling soup into or­phans and that kind of carry-on”. And Cut­ter is the piv­otal char­ac­ter, with the oth­ers ca­reen­ing around him like whirling dervishes, feed­ing him cues for some of the fun­ni­est lines of di­a­logue I’ve read in ages.

Just last week O’don­nell wrote a piece in The Ir­ish Times com­plain­ing of the lack of sparkle and lit­er­ary chutz­pah in pos­i­tive book re­views “writ­ten by job­bing midlis­ters”, he says, “for the price of a no-frills hair ap­point­ment”. In­deed. Whether this stance, so near to pub­lish­ing day (last Thurs­day), strikes a blow for un­speak­able brav­ery or un­speak­able fool­har­di­ness is — for those of us who don’t have hair ap­point­ments to keep – a prompt for a pro­longed Twit­ter de­bate, I imag­ine.

But it leaves me a tad un­com­fort­able ad­mit­ting I liked Ves­per Sands a lot. It’s a clever Gothic mys­tery, evoca­tive and metic­u­lously faith­ful to its time and set­ting. So there you are. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea max­ima culpa.

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