Wealthy New Yorker Hugo Delegate is discovered next to the mutilated body of his friend, Bev Willets. With his history of nervous disorders and memory loss, Hugo fails to protest when he is arrested and taken to the Tombs for questioning.
He slowly reveals the extraordinary story of his foster sister, Bronwyn, who was found by Hugo’s father in Virginia City. There she was forced to perform in a freak show as the mute Savage Girl, allegedly raised by wolves. Hugo’s parents had a hobby of collecting lost souls or misfits, and they took the girl back home, where they embarked on a Pygmalion-like experiment to educate and fashion her into a society debutante.
Hugo is both bewitched and alarmed by her. He drops his Harvard medical studies and starts investigating her possible link to the gruesome killings of men who may have been her lovers. But if she is guilty, she is artful enough to always keep one step ahead of discovery and, in his mental anguish, Hugo speculates if it is in fact he himself and not the Savage Girl who might be responsible.
This is part psychological crime thriller, part exposé of a mannered and glittering society. The dialogue has a delightful witty and luxuriant quality that complements the descriptions of New York in the 1870s, this world of the frivolous ultra-rich who ignore the base humanity that underpins their lifestyle. Hugo is a most charming narrator with his vulnerabilities, but Bronwyn in all her various embodiments remains inscrutable, a will-o’-the-wisp.
The final denouement ties things up a bit too neatly and doesn’t quite match the earlier dynamism of the novel. Perhaps a more enigmatic conclusion would have fitted with its semi-gothic style a little better, but it is still a most enjoyable read and highly recommended.