London, 1893. On the case is Inspector Cutter as well as Gideon Bliss, a Cambridge dropout in love with one of the missing girls. And clever young journalist Octavia Hillingdon sees the case as a chance to tell a story that matters―despite her employer’s preference that she stick to a women’s society column. As Inspector Cutter peels back the mystery layer by layer, he leads them all, at last, to the secrets that lie hidden at the house on Vesper Sands. O'Donnell's US debut.
... the novel unfolds in a vividly evoked England during the bitter winter of 1893. From the first pages it promises the same gothic spookiness as its predecessor ... Death throws an ever-looming shadow over proceedings – the book’s sections are even named after parts of the Requiem Mass – but O’Donnell has no intention of serving up a standard Victorian chiller. Instead he has created a gloriously unorthodox confection, part Wilkie Collins, part Conan Doyle, with a generous handful of police procedural and a splash of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. There is even a distinctly Hitchcockian interlude on a train ... structurally more satisfying and driven by a more compelling plot. O’Donnell has pulled off with brio something that might, in a lesser writer’s hands, have fallen horribly flat: he has written a coherent and satisfying novel that is both disquietingly eerie and properly funny. It is impossible to read it without laughing out loud. Sharp, impatient and eye-wateringly brusque, Inspector Cutter powers through the pages, relentlessly squashing the assiduous, overeducated Gideon with his scathing remarks. The determinedly diplomatic accounts Gideon writes of his superior’s interviews as he conducts his inquiries are comic works of art ... O’Donnell dispenses the waspish wit of the beau monde with Wildean relish ... Yet none of this detracts from the unsettling strangeness of the book’s central mystery ... The dramatic denouement is striking and pleasingly unexpected. And while the laughs provide welcome respite from the darkness, their greater achievement is to bring a kind of bracing tenderness to a tale that might, in these #MeToo times, have felt voyeuristic and exploitative. Beneath its spooky exterior The House on Vesper Sands is a paean to the unshowy virtues of determination, diligence and loyalty. It is also a cracking good read. The book ends with an epilogue that could be dismissed as superfluous, except that it plainly lays the ground for a sequel. Regardless of where one ends up filing this novel on the bookshelves, that is excellent news for us all.
It takes a certain audacity to write a novel that tips its hat so mischievously to the most celebrated Victorian novelist, but Paraic O’Donnell has more than enough talent to get away with it ... there is no trace of difficult-second-novel nerves in this accomplished historical mystery ... tightly constructed ... There is a breath of the supernatural in the plotting of this book, but it’s to O’Donnell’s credit that he doesn’t rely on ghostly happenings to explain or resolve his plot. Instead, there is absolute logic to what people do and why. Even so, the supernatural elements are taken seriously. Often, spiritualism is played for laughs but a seance here is genuinely chilling. There is a sense, at times, of pure evil at work ... The plot zips along, tension rising as the investigation draws towards Vesper Sands and a series of revelations that touch on issues of class, mistreatment of women, power and privilege. But O’Donnell doesn’t break off to moralise. The pace never drops. Nor does he get bogged down in world-building, the fatal flaw for so many historical novelists. The setting is impeccably evoked but in glimpses, as the reader is taken by the elbow and hurried through muddy streets, barely pausing to wonder what a costermonger actually does or why gin shops ever fell out of fashion. It all feels solidly convincing even if the writing is delicate. There is the sense that you are in safe hands, that O’Donnell has done the research so that you needn’t worry about it, that you can safely lose yourself in the world and mystery that he has so skillfully created ... Cutter and Bliss are a wildly mismatched pair and much of the considerable humour here comes from Bliss’s wide-eyed wonder at the Inspector’s short way with obstacles. Stern and sarcastic, Inspector Cutter can be enrolled immediately in the hall of fame of fictional detectives, not least because he is far more complex than he appears at first ... Despite the historical setting this is a thoroughly modern novel, with fully developed characters grappling with their own psychological issues. Again, O’Donnell touches on this rather than dwelling on it at the expense of the plot, but the notes are very definitely struck ... brilliantly written, compelling and satisfying in so many ways. It demands to be read by a fire on a cold winter evening (but make sure the doors are locked before you begin). I only wish it had been twice as long.
The novel tracks...intersecting paths to the truth, building suspense until the dramatic payoff. There’s good fun in the investigations ... There’s also some genre silliness ... One slightly ticklish issue is that the supernatural elements of The House on Vesper Sands are remarkably similar to those in David Mitchell’s recent fantasy novels ... Yet such concerns become quibbles once you’re ensconced in the rich, Gothic embellishments of Mr. O’Donnell’s prose ... The House on Vesper Sands performs a...kind of enchantment, transforming a chronicle of sordid crimes into an enjoyably eerie ghost story.