BOOK CLUB Paraic O'Don­nell talks to us about his com­pelling mys­tery novel.


In the Moment - - Contents - Words: Sarah Di­tum


Lon­don, 1893. Seam­stress Es­ther Tull ar­rives at the home of Lord Stry­the; she has a mes­sage em­broi­dered in her own skin and one last job to do be­fore she climbs to the win­dow ledge and throws her­self down to her death on the snowy streets. This is how

Paraic O’Don­nell’s sec­ond novel, The House on Ves­per Sands, be­gins. From then, un­til the very end, the nely-struc­tured plot and in­tox­i­cat­ing at­mos­phere don’t let up for a sin­gle page. O’Don­nell’s mys­tery in­vokes, and lives up to, the mas­ter­works of Vic­to­rian sen­sa­tion lit­er­a­ture.

In­tro­duced into the mix are a miss­ing vicar called Her­bert Neuilly, his un­cer­tain ward Gideon Bliss, a ower girl called An­gela Tat­ton (miss­ing also), a plucky re­porter named Octavia Hilling­don, and In­spec­tor Cut­ter – a gruff de­tec­tive. All of them are in some way en­tan­gled in the busi­ness of the ‘Spirit­ers’, an ob­scure or­gan­i­sa­tion which is as­sumed to be be­hind the van­ish­ing of a series of young girls – the kind of girls who can van­ish all too eas­ily from Vic­to­rian streets. All of them are be­ing drawn, as if by force of mag­netism, to­wards the house on Ves­per Sands.

O’Don­nell has clearly had a blast in­vent­ing this world, and the de­light is in­fec­tious. His char­ac­ters are all recog­nis­able types of the genre, but they also have sub­stance and emo­tional heft. They’re of­ten a source of com­edy, but never the butt of a cheap laugh: at every turn, they mat­ter, and so does the res­o­lu­tion of the mys­tery they form part of. Ut­terly be­guil­ing and gor­geously evoca­tive of a lthy, cruel and vi­brant city, O’Don­nell has sup­plied one of this year’s most purely en­joy­able nov­els.

Q Ves­per Sands is a novel writ­ten with no coy­ness at all about its in­tent to en­ter­tain. How im­por­tant was that for you as a part of sto­ry­telling?

A There are lots of writ­ers I ad­mire who pro­duce work that is al­most wholly de­void of plot, but I don’t think that’s what I do. I have, un­der­ly­ing ev­ery­thing, an enor­mous sense of obli­ga­tion to any­body who sets aside ve, six, seven, eight hours to spend time with some­thing I’ve writ­ten. And I know plot is not the only way to grat­ify a reader, but it’s the old­est and the most re­li­able. It’s also partly a func­tion of the gen­res that I’m most at­tracted to, in this case his­tor­i­cal mys­tery. And also, an ob­vi­ous trib­ute to the nov­els of sen­sa­tion of the Vic­to­rian pe­riod.

Q Which sen­sa­tion nov­el­ists did you have in mind when you were writ­ing?

A The touch­stone for this book is Wilkie Collins – The Woman in White and The Moon­stone. It’s enor­mous fun to write in that tra­di­tion, where you’re more or less con­sciously mak­ing use of fa­mil­iar tropes and try­ing to re­ha­bil­i­tate them in a sub­ver­sive way, which the nov­els of sen­sa­tion of­ten did. That’s one of the things that I hope to ac­com­plish in Ves­per Sands, to re­ha­bil­i­tate and re­fash­ion some of the very fa­mil­iar el­e­ments in a way that would sat­isfy the mod­ern sen­si­bil­ity and, in par­tic­u­lar, a fem­i­nist sen­si­bil­ity.

Q There’s the line you give to one char­ac­ter: “men don’t need magic to do evil”…

A Ex­actly. To be clear, the trope that we’re talk­ing about here is dead girls, which is very rightly com­ing in for scru­tiny, be­cause it’s some­thing that has been done very, very badly over and over again. I wanted to not glo­rify or mys­tify the male agents of vi­o­lence. I wanted to ex­pose the squalor and van­ity of their ac­tions and of their il­lu­sions about them­selves. And, for want of a bet­ter word, to hon­our the vic­tims. It felt im­por­tant that none of the vic­tims be just a body on a slab. So there’s the lofty am­bi­tions, and they’re very of­ten in con ict with the tra­di­tions of the genre. But that’s the chal­lenge.

Q Where does writ­ing a novel be­gin for you?

A I’m a highly vis­ual writer, and the germ of the story is an aes­thetic. Very of­ten what I be­gin with are an ar­ray of images and a series of scenes, and once those are in place it’s just a ques­tion of nav­i­gat­ing be­tween them, and putting in place the plumb­ing that will al­low those set-pieces to func­tion in the con­text of a plot. I have the chal­lenge of de­vis­ing plau­si­ble rea­sons why one of th­ese things could have given rise to the other, and that was very much the case in this book in par­tic­u­lar. The link be­tween the sui­cide of Es­ther Toll, which opens the book, and the sub­se­quent events was by no means clear to me when I started writ­ing, but by half­way through the bones of the story are in place.

Q So the mys­tery that you make for the reader is the so­lu­tion to a puz­zle that you’ve set your­self ?

A Yes, very much so. I hon­estly don’t know how un­usual that is, but it’s cer­tainly true for me. Read­ers want to be puz­zled, they want to have knots to pick at. If the ar­chi­tec­ture of the puz­zle is di cult for me, then I ex­pect that to be trans­lated in some way to the reader’s ex­pe­ri­ence. That is the way in which the plot in this story thick­ens, for bet­ter or for worse.

Q Did you have any per­sonal favourites out of your char­ac­ters?

A I have a ter­ri­ble weak­ness for fall­ing in love with char­ac­ters gen­er­ally. I do luck­ily have pro­fes­sion­als watch­ing over me who will check my worst im­pulses. I did es­pe­cially en­joy my­self with In­spec­tor Cut­ter, and with his di­a­logue in par­tic­u­lar, which just sort of emerged. I’m very dis­trust­ful of the no­tion of char­ac­ters hav­ing au­ton­omy. I think that’s some­thing that writ­ers say to mys­tify the process – but that di­a­logue was some­thing that just emerged or­gan­i­cally from the scenes. So yes, I do have to con­fess to hav­ing a favourite in the shape of In­spec­tor Cut­ter.


The House on Ves­per Sands (Orion Books, £14.99) is out now. To nd out more, and see the trailer for the book, visit Paraic’s web­site (www. paraicodon­

O’Don­nell’s mys­te­ri­ous and en­gag­ing plot un­rav­els in aVic­to­rian Lon­don set­ting.

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