As a general rule, crime is not my genre of choice. I get scared too easily. It was, therefore, with a little trepidation that I opened the covers of Kate Williams’s Victorian thriller. How wrong preconceptions can be. Was I scared? Yes, at times I felt I might have to check under the bed before going to sleep. But The Pleasures of Men is so much more than a thriller – crime, period drama and coming-of age novel all rolled into one, it has something for everyone and is not a choice you will regret.
A fantastically gripping read, The Pleasures of Men is one of those books that should ideally be devoured in a single sitting. The suspense is pitched perfectly so that it never wavers until the bitter end, and even then the reader is left wondering what on earth might happen next – on the penultimate page we are introduced to another twist which makes us wonder if the innocuous ending really is all that it seems. Williams’ background as a biographer is evident in the splendid wealth of historical detail on every page. A quick scan of the bibliography will reveal just how much research went into the book. Williams has a gift for conjuring up, out of a few well-placed phrases, a believable reality: the reader is transported into the vivid world of Victorian London through her sensitive eye for detail, and never once does our belief in this world waver. In her hands, the East End of the 1840s lives and breathes, with all its open sewers, dens of thieves and the bells of the nightsoil men. Even novice historians will come away able to pass a test on the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign.
A compelling crime novel and a crash course in history for beginners, The Pleasures of Men also draws the reader in with its array of adeptly-portrayed, wonderfully individual characters. From the shady, sadistic uncle to the sinisterly twittering ladies in the upper echelons of society, from the sickening serial killer to Catherine herself, the shy, at times frustratingly naïve heroine with a dark past full of more twists than a labyrinth, the pages are populated by an army of believable characters who are all flawed and therefore ever-so human. A good novelist makes you genuinely care about her characters – it is probably Williams’s natural biographer’s skills which again help her, seemingly effortlessly, to achieve this Holy Grail.
Over its nearly 400 pages, The Pleasures of Men touches on a wide range of complex themes – love and death, secrecy and betrayal, politics and madness, sex and gender roles. It sounds like the kind of novel which could be confusing, but somehow these ideas blend seamlessly, forming a tightly woven historical setting against which the events of the crime-based plot can play out. The novel becomes a cocktail of Dickens’ meticulous description, Austen’s social commentary, Radcliffe’s gothic terrors and a page-turning thriller, shaken and stirred to form a perfect blend. Williams is an author with whom you will be in safe hands – there is not a chink in the setting or a dropped stitch in the plot. You will be kept gripped until the last word (although you may be wise not to read the book late at night).
In an interview, Williams said she has ‘been living in the eighteenth century for nearly ten years’. After reading The Pleasures of Men you could be forgiven for thinking she now lives in the nineteenth, so believable is the world she has created and the characters that inhabit it. So put away those history books, turn on a light and fetch out your crinolines and something to hide behind – The Pleasures of Men is a roller-coaster ride into a disturbing, gripping, all-too-vivid world which you won’t be forgetting in a hurry.