‘This newspaper has taken note that the past month has been remarkable for the prevalence of cases where men, women and children are declared missing. Scarcely a week passes without the occurrence of an incident of this type’ – The Morning Herald, Tuesday 13 September 1831
Down the murky alleyways of London, acts of unspeakable wickedness are taking place and the city’s vulnerable poor are disappearing from the streets. Out of these shadows comes Hester White, a bright young woman who is desperate to escape the slums by any means possible. When Hester is thrust into the world of the aristocratic Brock family, she leaps at the chance to improve her station in life under the tutelage of the fiercely intelligent and mysterious Rebekah Brock. But whispers from her past slowly begin to poison her new life and both she and Rebekah are lured into the most sinister of investigations, dragging them into the blackest heart of a city where something more depraved than either of them could ever imagine is lurking… (Synopsis from publisher)
“My advice is don’t rely on a man to be on time and don’t trust all what the newspapers write in their dailies.”
The Wicked Cometh marks a departure for me – it’s the first time in quite a while that I’ve chosen to read a book that has no hint of fantasy or magic, and is purely historical fiction, albeit with a generous helping of the Gothic. The Wicked Cometh is the kind of historical fiction I enjoy – it doesn’t sugarcoat or glorify the Victorian age, instead it presents a London that is more about the blood and excrement in the back alleys of the busy thoroughfares than the refined drawing rooms of the elite in society. It proclaims to be “a novel of darkest London” and this book goes to some very dark places indeed, with the book opening with its protagonist, a parson’s daughter, now down-and-out, Hester White, asleep in an outside shed with only the ragged clothes she’s wearing as protection against the cold wind of the night that whistles through the slums in which she lives, a slum from which many people are going missing, with no explanation, or concern raised. What emerges from this less than auspicious start, via the fortuitous happenstance of a carriage accident putting Hester in the path of the aristocratic Brocks, is a story about how far it is possible to rise and fall and what nature of crimes both the upper and under classes commit in everyday life. It concerns the question of the period – can the lower classes be educated and, therefore, have a better “value” in the eyes of the government and society at large? These macrocosmic concerns are, naturally, dealt with through the journey of the novel’s protagonist Hester, as she meets some unsavoury characters along the way, in the slums and drawing rooms alike.
“Instead of the majesty of Westminster Abbey and the grandeur of the Banqueting House, here the houses spill over each other; dishevelled and ugly. A sickly, rotten stench rises from the streets and the rain-bloated gutters. Some thoroughfares bulge with black mud where pools of fetid water have collected, while others are narrow and meandering. All are swart with the lack of daylight and connected by alleyways and byways that seep over the scabbed ground.”
My real delight in The Wicked Cometh was in the setting. London can sometimes be glorified as a bustling metropolis full of industry and commerce, but it also has its flip side, it is the home of the darker, more insidious stories such as Oliver Twist and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the den of rapscallions and rogues where truly evil deeds are committed right under the noses of the police force, perhaps even aided by it. Descriptions of this London always hold a place in my heart – and Carlin’s novel is no exception. There are some stunningly evocative descriptive sections during which I could practically feel the stifling fog through which Hester moved, the stench rising from the gutters she crossed, the sound of footsteps on cobble stones behind her as she was hotly pursued by brutes. This all culminated to present a very gripping and atmospheric world into which it was easy to sink and devour the story as it unfolded.
“Familiar steeples and chimneys appear on the horizon, their image growing harder as the mist recedes. That unforgettable wan light surrounds me, that eternal dusk. With each step, I feel the stricture of the alleys and the oppression of the streets. Warped buildings, dark and impersonal, leer above me, and I find that I too am stooped with the dejection of the place.”
As far as characters go, Hester White was an intriguing protagonist. The use of first-person narrator means we are never far from her innermost thoughts and feelings, which undoubtedly aids a reader to develop empathy for her trials and tribulations. Hester is inclined towards the hyperbolic as, I’m sure, we all are on occasion. However, it did slightly draw me out of the story at certain moments because her reaction seemed so overblown and heightened in its phrasing that it felt fake – I suddenly became very aware I was reading a crafted novel where, I’m sure, the author carefully crafted a beautiful, if over-dramatic, turn of phrase. Given that Hester can easily slip between “London vowels” (whatever they are) and a more aristocratic way of speaking, perhaps this heightened inner monologue is just the author’s way of illustrating it.
“Just as I have played the part of an ignorant slum-dweller for Calder, so I must do the same with Rebekah. If I have learnt one thing from my life in London, it is that sometimes it is necessary to descend to deceit, and that those who survive have the wit to know that.”
I’m afraid that the reason I didn’t quite love this novel was purely down to narrative style, which is a matter of taste. Carlin does extremely well at emulating the tones of, especially, Charles Dickens in her sentence structures and lexical choices, but she does almost too well (for me) because her narrative also falls into a more sedate pacing that is common in 500-plus-page nineteenth-century novels. However, given the dark and twisted subject matter of just how little valued the underclasses of Victorian London are (or, rather, where their value lies – the concept of which, I loved), the plot often felt hampered by the narrative style which didn’t have quite as much urgency or suspense-building as I would have liked. It just didn’t quite work for me. Also, this is the third book in a row I’ve read (of all different genres) where the author chooses to tell the story in present, as opposed to the more commonplace past, tense… for no apparent reason. It doesn’t particularly aid the story in any way, it just creates a somewhat jarring effect for the first few pages, and meant I took longer than I ordinarily would to slip fully inside the world of the story, which I’m sure is the precise opposite effect of what telling a story in the present tense is meant to do.
“My eyes dart this way and that, from the candle ’s swaying flame, to the dead dog, to the corpse, as I try to comprehend it all.”
Overall, this was an extremely interesting concept which, for me, fell down slightly in execution. However, for any readers who enjoy authors such as Sarah Waters and Sarah Perry and Dickensian tales of the murky, deplorable backstreets of Victorian London, complete with ne’er-do-wells and bodysnatchers, The Wicked Cometh is an accomplished debut novel with solid characterisation and plotting that promises stunning things to come from Laura Carlin in the future.
“We have no need to protect ourselves from the bad sort, because we are the bad sort. Foglers, lifters and murderers surround us: everyone’s on the dodge in some shape or form. Jews to the right, Gypsies to the left and Jacktars in the rooms above: all in all, a well of criminality.”
Thank you to Hodder & Stoughton for kindly providing me with an eARC of the book via NetGalley – I greatly appreciate the opportunity to read and review titles prior to their release, but this does not affect my overall opinion or review of the book itself.
Please note: the quotes above were taken from the eARC copy of the novel – this may be subject to change and differ from the published text of the novel.