And comic derring-do in Victorian London
“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.