This dark Victorian tale that vividly creates the underbelly of life of the times in a similar style to Sarah Waters’ early books covering the same period.
The year is 1831 as The Wicked Cometh opens and we are treated to an alarming newspaper cutting:
‘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’
Down the dark alleys we go, through the putrid mud, into a room with damp walls, a mud floor and precious little to eat although the master of the house always manages to find a shilling for his sup of gin and we meet Hester White who lives with the occupants Jacob and Meg and their twin children having lost her parents in her native Lincolnshire and been taken in by the pair and moved to London. The family is now down on their luck and Hester is desperate to find a way out.
With the sights, sounds and smells excellently depicted there is no doubting that this is an atmospheric read and Hester is a likeable and lively protagonist to lead us on the dreadful journey and one that has us meeting all sorts of likeable and frankly revolting characters along the way whether the mode of transport is by carriage or shank’s pony.
The first half of the book really sets the scene and at times this seems a bit too meandering for my tastes with those like Hester who are left to live by their wits being compared to the well-heeled who quaff wine and dress in exotic clothes whilst carrying out good deeds in their spare time. So we meet the Brock family, the surgeon son, his spinster sister Rebekah and the old gentleman Septimus, the one who holds the purse-strings and therefore gets to make the rules. And Septimus wants Rebekah married but it doesn’t take a genius to work out why this scholarly woman is not really cut out for the life of a lady who wafts around. By coincidence some of the missing have links with the Brock household and Rebekah is trying to work out where they have gone.
There are plenty of characters and at times I confess got a little confused as they blended into one sorry tale after another, never really quite being distinct enough to merit a full role in the drama.
The pace really picks up in the second half of the book with the investigation into the ever-growing number of missing, those who are invisible except to those who read the increasingly long list of names pinned to a hoarding in the hopes that someone will know where they are. There is action and danger, a need to win trust to prise the secrets out and to know who to divulge the snippets to, how trustworthy are the new Bow Street Runners and will they do something to help?
There is a lot to enjoy in this terrible tale, one where the gloom is never far away in those dank and dreary times told with pleasingly consistent prose.
I’d like to thank the publishers Hodder & Stoughton for allowing me to read an advance copy of The Wicked Cometh; this review is my thanks to them.