The House on Vesper Sands


Paraic O'Donnell


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

April 10, 2022

ordered this book from the library catalog after reading a couple of glowing reviews, one in The Seattle Times, the other in Bookpage. Both reviews called this book a mystery novel, and it does have the standard trappings of a mystery novel: grisly crimes, suspicious characters, and a detective from Scotland Yard and his sidekick sergeant trying to piece together the clues. But the central mystery and the ultimate resolution of the plot both involve supernatural elements, so perhaps this book should have been filed under the fantasy / horror category?

What I liked best about this novel were the characters. The irascible Scotland Yard detective is Inspector Cutter. He is gruff, impatient and does not suffer fools. Inspector Cutter is always quick with a cutting remark, a sarcastic question, or a pointed insult. Many of the reviews of The House on Vesper Sands call it a comedic book, and presumably it is Inspector Cutter's remarks that they find so humorous. I didn't laugh at any of Cutter's jabs, so this was not a funny book to me, but nonetheless I found Inspector Cutter an intriguing character.

The heroine of the story is Octavia Hillingdon. Octavia works as a journalist for the Mayfair Gazette. Octavia wants to write about serious issues while her editor wants to confine her to the society page, where a fragile woman ought to know her place (the novel is set in Victorian England). But there are many rumors about the "Spiriters" who have been abducting young girls. Such a morbidly fascinating subject would sell many papers, and Octavia does have access to some high society circles - scandals about aristocrats also sell a lot of newspapers. Octavia is smart and determined, certainly not the delicate girl that all her male cohorts presume her to be. Best of all, Octavia rides her bicycle through the streets of London, which makes her a protagonist worth cheering on.

The third member of the our team of heroes is young Gideon Bliss. Bliss is a student at Oxford who has been summoned to London by his tight-lipped uncle, the Reverend Neuilly. Bliss knows nothing about his uncle's activities, except that he tries to help vulnerable young woman. One such woman was Angela "Angie" Tatton, whom Bliss fell heavily for during his last visit to his uncle.

The novel begins with a peculiar prologue. A seamstress named Esther Tull is let into the foreboding mansion of Lord Strythe. Tull is locked into an upstairs by the sinister butler, where she is expected to work diligently on a long white lacey gown. Instead, Tull opens a safe, destroys some crystal bottles, and then hurls herself from the upstairs balcony, dying when her head smashes upon the pavement below. None of these actions are explained to the reader. Indeed, the entire novel is coy about what exactly is going on. It would be an understatement to say that the characters speak elliptically - did everyone in Victorian England have an aversion to plain speaking? There are hints and cryptic remarks, and an awful lot of characters saying things to the tune of "I don't want to tell you something that might distress you" or "I don't wish to speculate without holding all the facts". This deliberate obfuscation by O'Donnell got to be frustrating. When I reached page 303 in the hardcover book (there are 399 total pages), a section titled V In Paradisum, so little had been resolved that I wondered if all the threads could possibly be wrapped up by the finish of the novel. The story does finish - but unfortunately, O'Donnell results to the old plot device where the villain explains in detail all the mysterious happenings before he intends to kill our protagonists. This is the only part of the novel where a character speaks directly instead of with ambiguous hints and misleading remarks. I appreciated the explanation of the plot lines, but I prefer a story where the detectives actually solve the case.

Overall, The House on Vesper Sands is a worthwhile read. It reminded me of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes - another story that featured a woman journalist trying to track down a murderous fiend who uses supernatural ability (in that novel, it was a time traveling house) to kill young girls who have a special, magical "glow" about them.