The House on Vesper Sands - book cover
  • Publisher : Tin House Books
  • Published : 11 Jan 2022
  • Pages : 408
  • ISBN-10 : 1951142985
  • ISBN-13 : 9781951142988
  • Language : English

The House on Vesper Sands



London, 1893: high up in a house on a dark, snowy night, a lone seamstress stands by a window. So begins the swirling, serpentine world of Paraic O'Donnell's Victorian-inspired mystery, the story of a city cloaked in shadow, but burning with questions: why does the seamstress jump from the window? Why is a cryptic message stitched into her skin? And how is she connected to a rash of missing girls, all of whom seem to have disappeared under similar circumstances?

On the case is Inspector Cutter, a detective as sharp and committed to his work as he is wryly hilarious. Gideon Bliss, a Cambridge dropout in love with one of the missing girls, stumbles into a role as Cutter's sidekick. And clever young journalist Octavia Hillingdon sees the case as a chance to tell a story that matters―despite her employer's preference that she stick to a women's society column. As Inspector Cutter peels back the mystery layer by layer, he leads them all, at last, to the secrets that lie hidden at the house on Vesper Sands.

By turns smart, surprising, and impossible to put down, The House on Vesper Sands offers a glimpse into the strange undertow of late nineteenth-century London and the secrets we all hold inside us.

Editorial Reviews


"Enjoyably eerie."
The Wall Street Journal

"Written with modern wit and a Dickensian sense of detail."
Oprah Daily

"A tour de force."
The Star Tribune

"Gripping, elegantly written, and very funny."
The Seattle Times

The Washington Post

"Dickens is whirling enviously in his grave. . . . Read by a fire on a cold winter evening."
The Irish Times

"Part Wilkie Collins, part Conan Doyle . . . A cracking good read."
The Guardian

"Eerie . . . haunting and fantastically enjoyable."
Helen Macdonald

"Shivery, suspenseful and altogether delicious, The House on Vesper Sands reads like the classic that Conan Doyle never got around to writing and marks Paraic O'Donnell as a conjuror worth following."
Louis Bayard, author of The Pale Blue Eye

"The most vivid and compelling portrait of late Victorian London since The Crimson Petal and the White."
Sarah Perry, author of Melmoth

"Appealing. . . . Readers will enjoy losing themselves in O'Donnell's atmospheric adventure, which explores themes of feminism, class and Victorian mores. . . . [A] perfect winter book club pick."

"Stellar. . . . Fans of Sarah Perry (not to mention Dickens and Wilkie Collins) will be captivated by this marvelous feat."
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

"Twisty and serpentine―there's so much to love here."
Book Riot

"I can't possibly recommend highly enough Paraic O'Donnell's altogether riveting The House on Vesper Sands. Suspenseful, unnerving―positively bursts with inventiveness."
Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer's English

"Diabolical and delicious, this is the most enjoyable mystery I've read in years."
Sandra Newman, author of The Heavens

"Clever and funny, and exquisitely disturbing, it is an utter joy."
Joanna Cannon, author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

"Like the love child of Dickens and Conan Doyle, but funnier than both."
Liz Nugent, author of Our Little Cruelties

Readers Top Reviews

S. Evans
I haven't read this book yet, technically speaking, so should perhaps hold off on the reviewing front, but I count myself well enough versed in the author's abilities in prose to speak with authority. I have followed him on Twitter for the last six or seven years and he is - seriously - one of the two or three most consistently funny and original tweeters out there, bristling with elan, insouciance and joi de vivre. if - as I have sometimes fantasised - one could have one's favourite tweets rendered as little enamel broaches to wear as conversation starters (and to lend an old school prefect air to a battered blazer) the Paraic's work would dominate by jewellery box. And so, never having had to pay for a single one of these gems, I would have pounced upon this purchase as an opportunity to thank him for that much innocent pleasure alone. Now that I see what universally excellent reviews it has been getting (at least from anyone not pathologically obsessed with accurately rendering the 19th Century hierarchy of class distinction) I am looking forward to reading it as much as I did owning it. But whether you do or not, do follow him on Twitter. Seriously. x
Joanne Sheppard
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 cas...
I absolutely loved this book! I very rarely leave Amazon reviews, but I had to review this (mostly in the hope that Mr O'Donnell will be compelled to write a sequel if enough people rave about this one!). Wonderful characters, beautiful writing, a gripping plot - wonderful! Also very funny at points (Bliss's police notes are a comedic masterwork). Enjoy!
Dave SchwinghammerJe
THE HOUSE ON VESPER SANDS is set in late nineteenth century, always a draw for me. This was a time when Arthur Conan Doyle was fascinated with spiritualism and apparently believed in it. Paraic O'Donnell does him one better. At the beginning of his novel, A seamstress jumps to her death after stealing some suspicious vials from a residence she was working at. Inspector Cutter of Scotland Yard, his “sergeant” Gideon Bliss, and reporter Octavia Hillingdon, the main characters in the story, arrive at the scene. Octavia's editor has been harassing her about investigating the spiritualists, which would arouse more reader interest. She wants to be the next Nelly Bly and looks down her nose at such drollery. Gideon Bliss, who is not really a sergeant, wants the inspector to investigate a missing woman, Angie Tatton, whom he had found passed out at a church, only to be hit on the head. When he awoke she was gone. The story often gets confusing. An aristocrat, an earl, lives at the house where the seamstress killed herself. So does Gideon's estranged uncle who has paid his way to Cambridge. Initially I got them confused. His uncle is a minister who concerns himself with working girls, literal ones, not prostitutes. Angie Tatton is a working girl whom Gideon's uncle is trying to save. Other working girls are either disappearing or being found dead. The spiritualists are somehow involved. Eventually we find out that the girls all had something in common besides their class; they all had a certain brightness. Being a logical sort, I thought that meant vitality. I wish O'Donnell had moved in that direction, but he's being literal. When we see her again, Angie Cutter is so bright you can see through parts of her. The bad guys connect this brightness with a sort of fountain of youth. The seamstress was destroying vials of an concoction that made them even brighter. Anyone who touched them became younger. O'Connell had a chance to make that believable to a degree when he has Octavia go to a séance, but it didn't work. O'Donnell seems to think that if you believe in ghosts you should believe this plot line. Nope. I believe in suspension of disbelief. He doesn't do that.
ObserverKK in TXkati
I purchased this after seeing rave reviews in the NYT, WaPo, and other places. I am disappointed. I did read it all the way through - I often don't if the book disappoints me. So, that is something in it's favor. My complaints: 1) more of an odd couple/buddy story of misanthropic London police inspector suffering from toxic masculinity and passive Cambridge theology student than a real mystery. 2) narrative very vague: a) malefactors steal the "spirits" of young women by means or processes that are never adequately explained or even described; b) denouement written so vaguely that you don't really know what happened to the villain or one of the protagonists; c) approximately a third of narrative devoted to heiress/society reporter whose relevance becomes apparent only in the last quarter of the story; d) relies too heavily on mystical/gothic elements. A strength of the book is it's vivid depiction of Victorian era London.