Book review: The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams

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The shadowy streets and alleyways of Spitalfields in early Victorian London are dens of vice, filth and poverty.

Disease and death stalk its despairing inhabitants and murder is rife... but equally dark and disturbing is the tortured mind of lonely teenager Catherine Sorgeiul who lives with her uncle in a rambling house in London’s unfashionable East End.

She has little to occupy her except her own vivid imagination and memories of another, and what seems now distant, life in upmarket Richmond.

So when stories begin circulating of a murderer called the Man of Crows who kills and mutilates young women, it sends her thoughts into overdrive and before long, she can hear not just the voices of the victims but the killer himself.

Kate Williams is a now familiar TV historian, her books include England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton and Becoming Queen, a portrait of young Queen Victoria, and she was a consultant on the hit film Young Victoria.

The Pleasures of Men, her first foray into novel writing, takes us deep into the unedifying underbelly of 1840s London... and it’s a weaving, winding and occasionally unfathomable journey full of corruption, death, forbidden love and hidden family secrets.

There are horribly graphic and grisly murders, moments of pure Victorian melodrama, a weird cast of assorted characters and, coursing through the pulsating heart of the story, a tense and unsettling mystery.

Catherine’s past hangs over her like a black cloud – she is haunted by tragedy, feelings of guilt and a spell in an asylum which has estranged her from her family and left her in the care of her pedantic uncle.

When she hears in her head the voice of milliner Abigail Greengrass, first victim of the serial killer, she feels freed at last from her ‘dreadful thoughts’ and determines to ‘throw myself into the Man of Crows, be bound up in him and his atrocity, and find release.’

Catherine decides that the best way to track down the killer ‘and set everybody free’ is to steal out of the house at night, wander the streets of Spitalfields and lure him out from his lair.

Certain that he will not attack her because she can ‘see evil, recognise terror, and that would stay his hand,’ she sets out in the dark on her dangerous and deadly quest.

But Catherine gradually realises she is snared in a deadly trap, where nothing is as it first appears, and lurking behind the lies she has been told are secrets more deadly and devastating than anything her imagination can conjure...

Despite a disjointed narrative style which slows the pace and teeters dangerously on confusion at times, The Pleasures of Men is a chilling and atmospheric mystery which has an authentically detailed and gritty backdrop.

A stirring debut from the Queen of Victoriana...

(Michael Joseph, paperback, £12.99)