BOOK CLUB Paraic O'Donnell talks to us about his compelling mystery novel.
EVERY ISSUE WE PICK A BRILLIANT BOOK THAT WE THINK YOU’LL LOVE TO READ. THIS ISSUE, WE TALK TO PARAIC O’DONNELL ABOUT HIS COMPELLING MYSTERY NOVEL
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.
O’Donnell’s mysterious and engaging plot unravels in aVictorian London setting.