The House on Vesper Sands
Paraic O'Donnell
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Buy *The House on Vesper Sands* by Paraic O'Donnell online

The House on Vesper Sands
Paraic O'Donnell
Tin House Books
408 pages
January 2021
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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In the 19th century, London's gaslight is visible from the home of reclusive Lord Strythe, where his new seamstress Esther Tull is in a frantic search for a certain drug, the crystal vessels arranged on a tray in Strythe's grand, foreboding office. Esther could be free of all this "as she had yearned to be for so long." She is caught running from the handsome house on Half Moon Street toward Piccadilly and the dark fringe of Green Park, where the falling snow feels tender, almost "like a final kindness." Gideon Bliss embarks on a journey from Cambridge to London to be taken in by his uncle, Reverend Doctor Herbert Neuilly. A change in Gideon's circumstances means he must take new lodgings in Soho. Neuilly fears for those in his care, speaking in dark terms of others who wished him ill. London seems to be constantly shrouded vastness.

In these unfamiliar streets, Gideon falls into the orbit of Miss Angela Tatton. What happened to Angela? How did she come to be mysteriously poisoned in this place? What secrets does Strythe's London lodgings hold? And what of his ancestral home, the house on Vesper Sands where Strythe's sister, Lady Ada, in poor health for many years, seems to live in limbo? What of all the girls vanishing off the London streets, "scullery maids and match girls disappearing left and right"? What is Lord Strythe, the reclusive brother, actually hiding?

Reporter Octavia Hillingdon cycles in the direction of St. James' Palace. Like many Londoners, Octavia notices the pall of fear fallen over Whitechapel and surrounding districts, occasioned by the recent disappearance of yet another young girl. Gideon joins up with Inspector Cutter of New Scotland Yard to solve the mystery of the missing girls. The trail takes them to Half Moon Street where Esther, the seamstress, was called to the house and fell to her death from an upstairs window.

Strythe was reportedly at Ashenden House, the guest of honor at a gala for a benevolent foundation for injured work girls. Whatever her private sympathies, Octavia is obliged for now to ingratiate herself in such circles. As she attends the gala, Octavia is conscious of maintaining certain appearances and olooking into this "Spiriters business." Amid ridiculous tales about stealing souls in Whitechapel, Gideon struggles to bring order to his thoughts. He's convinced that Miss Hatton fell prey to some wickedness. If she had been drugged, as he believed, her conviction might have been borne of some delusion. As Gideon and Cutter race to unlock a puzzle which they are not yet equipped to solve, Gideon's Uncle Neuilly retreats once more into silence and isolation.

As the plot thickens, Gideon and Cutter's relationship grows more agitated. At Mrs. Campion's boarding house, the girls hear stories about the Spiritors, the dark arts, magic potions and stealing souls. Octavia may move in gay society, but she, too, feels the world shift around her. She learns about Lord Strythe, his mysterious disappearance and his abrupt departure from the ball, though the actual truth may be more sinister. Bliss speaks with urgency, telling Cutter that the cases are connected. The incident at Strythe House and the fate of Angie Tatton, "they're bound up."

From Old Montague street to Finch Street--a mean, filthy place, "hardly more than an alley where pools of fouled rainwater run"--the novel bathes us in an almost supernatural Victorian atmosphere. As Lord Strythe does his evil best to outmaneuver Octavia, Gideon and Cutter, Angela seems to become a "half shade, a ghost almost as if she were passing from the world." Angela's battles capture the nature of the era in all its spooky grandeur and the secrets of Vesper Sands, once a seaside villa that now betrays a faded elegance about its arches and mullions, where years of salt air have roughened its stone work.

This novel enjoys much of the shocking flavor of Willkie Collins' The Moonstone and even Imogen Robertson's Westerman/Crowther series, where a strong contest of wills is matched by the true origin of the spiritors. O'Donnell immerses us in the machinations of villains, scandalmongers, and pretentious aristocrats. Octavia, Gideon and Cutter prove to be fierce defenders of liberty in their battle to discover the truth behind the sinister intrigues and twisted actions of Lord Smythe, a gentleman unmatched in his cunning reach for power and influence.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2021

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