Review: The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell


I recently mentioned how much I was enjoying the recent strain of gothicism which is emerging in British literature ( My latest foray into this territory was The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell, which has received much praise for its cunning nod to older literary forms. Part Conan-Doylesque mystery, part Wilkie Collins style chiller, this is a story packed full of malevolent aristocrats, charismatic detectives, unexplained deaths and disappearances, and cunning twists.

The story is largely told from the perspective of Gideon Bliss – an impoverished Cambridge undergraduate – and Octavia Hillingdon, an orphan adopted by a wealthy newspaper magnate. Octavia’s indeterminate social status turns out to be to her advantage in her role as journalist and society columnist, with one foot in the banqueting halls of the upper classes and the other in the treacherous streets of Whitechapel. Both characters find themselves gradually sucked into the sinister world of the so-called ‘spiriters’, who may or may not be responsible for the unexplained deaths of several young, working class women.

It is, however, O’Donnell’s sleuth – Inspector Henry Cutter – who proves the most memorable character of all: a Scotland Yard police officer with a mouth like a sewer, who has a history with the spiriters and aims to see true justice served – a kind of Dickensian Spooky Mulder. Cutter takes Bliss under his wing and the two form a perfect old cop/young (fake) cop pairing – Cutter as world weary father figure to Bliss’s innocent, geeky son.

The book melds its supernatural theme into a realistic depiction of Victorian London and O’Donnell has the most amazing handle on imagistic language, conjuring, with a few deftly chosen words, the glamour of a society ball or the bleakness of the Kent coast. It’s a book you feel rather than read: a novel which slings the reader head first into a maze of dark, forbidding streets, flesh and blood characters and dialogue which captures speech rhythms and idiolects so well that it reads like eavesdropping.

This was a great read to start the year with, and left me with the feeling that if ever a detective deserved his own spin-off series, it is surely Inspector Cutter.

Review – “His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnet


Although I finished this book several days ago, it’s taken me some time to sit down and write a review. The reason for this is that it’s hard to register the impact of His Bloody Project until you’ve allowed the novel to really seep into your skin. It’s not so much the story we encounter on the page that makes this such a fascinating read, as the questions which that story leaves in its wake. That’s why I decided to consider my response to the narrative for a while before putting fingers to keyboard.

His Bloody Project is not a narrative which sits comfortably in any particular genre. While ostensibly a work of historical fiction, it is conceived as an investigation into the real murder of three members of a crofting family in the Scottish Highlands. The story is first presented in witness statements and through an account provided by Roderick Macrae, a seventeen year old crofter accused of the murders. Then come reports following Macrae’s trial, the verdict and its aftermath. This approach serves to immerse the reader not only in the tragedy itself, but also in the dying culture of the highland crofters who eke out an almost feudal existence in stark contrast to the industrialisation and capitalism surrounding them.

For me, this was one of the book’s greatest strengths and in this respect it feeds into current debates as to whether Scottish literature can or ought to be considered in any respect postcolonial. Roddy’s narration of his life up to the point of the murders serves as far more than a sensationalised account of a brutal crime. It reveals the severe hardships and pressures of a people still clinging to their traditions and ancient ties of kinship – a way of life which by this period had been forgotten in most other parts of the United Kingdom. It also reveals the way in which the complexities of the clan system and highland culture are misunderstood by outsiders who regard the crofters as primitive and savage in the same way that Victorian imperialists would regard subaltern cultures in other parts of the British empire as barbaric, thereby justifying the entire imperial project as one of ‘civilisation.’ This perspective is embodied in the figure of James Bruce Thomson, a genuine pioneer in the field of criminology and criminal psychology, who attempts to categorise Roddy and his community while failing to truly engage with them; his claims to be an objective man of science are undermined by his own arrogant assumptions and personal bias. As such, his representation of croft life reflects imperialist narratives of progress and evolution: “It is a shameful truth,” claims Thomson, “that the lower tribes of our country continue to exist in a state barely higher than livestock, deficient in the will to self-improvement which has brought progress to our southern regions.”

Roderick Macrae proves resistant to Thomson’s reductive narratives however, just as he slips through the pages of His Bloody Project without ever fully revealing himself to the reader. We learn from various sources that he is the most gifted, intelligent student at his local school, but that his father refuses to allow him to leave the croft for a better life. We know that he has an almost obsessive relationship with his older sister Jetta, that he is furious with the local constable Lachlan Mackenzie for the way he bullies the Macrae family, and that Roderick develops another obsessive longing for Mackenzie’s daughter, Flora. As the story unravels, however, the reader discovers that Roddy’s account of the events leading up to the murders is remarkable as much for what it conceals as for what it reveals.

Initially, when I finished reading this book, I felt as if I needed a greater sense of conclusion. It occurred to me, however, that Burnet probably wants to leave the final judgement of Roderick Macrae in the hands of the reader. And I think this is what gives the book its real power: it’s a story which continues to retell itself, long after you’ve finished the last page. This is a book which takes on a life of its own, and its impact rests in its ambiguity. Simply brilliant.