The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O'Donnell

The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O'Donnell, is one of those Victorian-set mysteries that has echoes of Arthur Conan-Doyle and Wilkie Collins, with a touch of Ripper Street and in this case, maybe a tiny hint of MR James. Struggling to concentrate (again) during a post-Christmas Covid lockdown and some additional real-life stressors, I chose this from my to-be-read stash on my Kindle in the hope of finding an absorbing, escapist mystery adventure that would hold my attention. 

The story begins in an appropriately intriguing and atmospheric fashion. A seamstress arrives at the home of a wealthy peer where she has been engaged, apparently not for the first time, to sew an elaborate gown for - who? And why? What's all the secrecy that seems to surround her visit? Why is she so on edge? 

Something, clearly, is going on, and it will take the combined efforts of our three main characters to find out what. Theology student Gideon Bliss, who has come from Cambridge to visit his uncle and benefactor in London only to find that he has apparently disappeared, falls in largely by accident with Inspector Cutter, an impatient  police officer with a particular interest in certain types of mystery. Meanwhile, Octavia Hillingdon, a bicycle-riding journalist intent on branching out from the society columns her editor assigns to her, is keen to cover a case that could make her name as an investigative reporter. 

O'Donnell is adept at bringing the murky, gas-lit atmosphere of Victorian London to life - you can almost smell the evening damp rising from the Thames and feel the threatening chill of the fog, but only very occasionally do things drop into pastiche. The characters, too, leap from the page with Dickensian vividness. The partnership with Cutter and Bliss - the classic mismatched detective duo - is hugely enjoyable and at times funny. The determined, ever-curious Octavia is also fun. They're easy characters to care about: I became invested in them immediately and the three of them fit together into the story like neatly-meshed cogs.

The House on Vesper Sands draws from a mixture of genres, and I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to reveal that there's an element of the supernatural to the story. Spiritualism, of course, was really quite in vogue for a time during the Victorian era, with seances and ghost photography capturing the spiritual and scientific interest of Victorians across the social classes. For example, Arthur Conan-Doyle - even as a qualified and doctor of medicine and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the most coolly rational detective of them all - firmly believed in the possibility of communicating with spirits and it's that blending of science and the occult that makes its way into this book. 

I'm usually a sucker for a supernaturally-influenced mystery and a big fan of the Victorian Gothic, but in this case I'm not sure the supernatural elements completely worked. The concept covered is an interesting one, but it wasn't explored in quite enough depth for me, so it almost felt tacked on rather than fully integrated. I like books that meld together genres and influences but I think it needs to be seamless, and in The House on Vesper Sands I could see the join.

However, I do think this is a book that's absolutely crying out for a sequel or five, and now there's an established set of parameters for the space these characters occupy, I think any subsequent books about them would probably manage to weave in the supernatural more effectively from page one. I have no idea whether O'Donnell actually is planning a sequel to The House on Vesper Sands, but my fingers are crossed because if he is, I'd love to read it.