This engaging novel invites the reader into the past, lifting a heavy velvet curtain to reveal gothic drama in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the late nineteenth century, where a series of gruesome crimes plunge the city into turmoil. The string of vicious murders captures the immediate attention of the authorities; left near each body, in plain view, is a cryptic message. These are no ordinary murders. The notes indicate a connection, the victims all related through past history. The heinous nature of these acts suggests the possibility of an unpleasant journey through the gates of hell, not for the faint of heart, where preconceived beliefs are suspended.
It begins in a dank and sterile orphanage some twenty years earlier, where a young girl, Evelyn Todd, makes up vivid stories about a lamplighter. She names the lamplighter Leerie, and he is created to entertain the other children and provide an imaginary affiliation with someone outside the walls of the orphanage, someone free to walk the streets. In the stories, Evelyn envisions Leerie on his nightly rounds, illuminating the murky avenues at night; such thoughts bring the lonely girl some small comfort, for she has little. But Evelyn is claimed by a so-called relative and is not heard from again, until she turns up in Edinburgh as an adult, confessing that she dreams each current murder precisely, able to recite the details exactly.
The policeman assigned to the case is Inspector Groves, who is on the verge of retirement and preparing to write his memoirs. He decides that Evelyn is a fitting last subject for his book. In his mind, she can unlock the mystery of the identity of the murderer, whom she recognizes as the lamplighter of her orphanage stories. There are, as well, two unofficial detectives, leaning towards Evelyn's innocence: Thomas McKnight, a professor of logic and metaphysics, and Joseph Canavan, a recently unemployed watchman. Of sympathetic natures, McKnight and Canavan believe that Evelyn is certainly at the crux of the mystery as well, but in the role of victim, helpless against the dark force let loose upon the city. They cautiously coax Evelyn into revealing the nightmares of her past.
After the Age of Enlightenment, philosophy is tempered with scientific knowledge, including the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Darwin's Origin of the Species, personifying the clash of religious dogma and superstition with science. Draping the darkened streets of Edinburgh with mystery and menace, O'Neill invites the reader into the bowels of Hell to confront the face of evil and the powers of the imagination as Evelyn's mentors descend into the abyss. In a pitched battle between good and evil, the road is hazardous, the path strewn with the hubris of human conceit.
Some mysteries are best left in the dark. Perhaps Evelyn is the archetype of free will, its arbiter of choice, though she clearly needs assistance. Further, her familiar, Leerie the Lamplighter, may be none other than Lucifer himself. In the roiling conclusion, smoke and flames obscure the view and the reader must decide if the Devil has indeed escaped his subterranean dwelling and been unleashed upon the streets of Edinburgh.