THE WICKED COMETH
By Laura Carlin
Hodder & Stoughton/Paperback/ 352 pages/$29.95/Books Kinokuniya/
Debut writer Laura Carlin evokes the seething pit of poverty in the backstreets of Dickensian London in the 1830s with The Wicked Cometh, a gritty Victorian whodunnit full of unexpected turns - and the sweet taste of forbidden fruit in the form of an unexpected love affair.
This period drama - from the skulduggery of swindlers to the grimy gin palaces where criminals plot and scheme - comes alive through the eyes of Hester White, the heroine formerly of the middle-class.
But she has fallen on hard times after the death of her parents, sent to live in the slums with her peasant relatives. She refuses to be consigned to her new fate and is determined to do whatever it takes to make her escape.
Meanwhile, young street urchins are being abducted from the slums almost every other day, although the police chief hardly bats an eyelid because they come from poor families.
Carlin writes: "Dark with the business of the people who live here. Dark with the deeds that are done."
Such insalubrious conditions are juxtaposed against the lives of the aristocratic class in what is clearly a social commentary on the power of those with the good fortune to be born rich.
White herself gets a lucky break when she gets struck by a horse carriage.
The passenger on board is the enigmatic surgeon Calder Brock, who decides to tend to her wounds and take her under his wing, educating her in an attempt to prove that "even those from the gutter" are capable of learning.
Her tutor will be Calder's sister Rebekah and she moves into the Brocks' massive mansion.
But she suspects her rags-to-riches experience is a poisoned chalice after she receives an anonymous note warning her to flee - or risk getting hurt or even killed.
The Wicked Cometh is gripping at times as the reader is pulled into White's orbit as she pieces together the puzzle of the missing children. It is also refreshing for a female protagonist to take charge in what had been a patriarchal era.
Some readers may find the writing style, a pastiche of Victorian English where characters do not "hurry" but instead "make haste", to be cloying.
The ill-paced novel could also be better edited. It meanders for the most part before lurching towards a melodramatically far-fetched resolution that quite neatly ties up loose ends - and yet is a world away from the realism that had been so beautifully introduced by the author.
Still, Carlin, who gave up a full-time job in retail banking to pursue writing, shows promise in her second career. If you like this, read: The Memory Eaters by Janice Tay (2017, Straits Times Press, $19.80, Books Kinokuniya). Set in an age of samurais and warlords, fictional ageless creatures named kuyin feed on human memories, with the victims losing the memories that have been eaten. But a kuyin named Sudare is guilt-stricken.