The Pleasures of Men

Written by Kate Williams
Review by Sarah Bower

The year is 1840, and London is in the grip of economic depression. There are riots in the streets, and a serial killer is on the loose in Spitalfields, where Catherine Sorgeiul lives with her eccentric uncle. The servants have deserted them due to fear of the murderer, and their only visitor is the mysterious Mr. Trelawney. Catherine herself, beautiful but mentally unstable, harbours dark secrets and a fascination with the murders.

On the face of it, The Pleasures of Men is a winner. A full-blown gothic mystery set in a period which has clear parallels with our own, written by an author who is also a distinguished historian of the Victorian age: it should be pure enjoyment. It is, however, a frustrating read, bogged down by cloying and overly elaborate language and a love of detail which slows the pace virtually to a standstill in parts. There is little clarity in the development of the plot, as the narrative slips in and out of Catherine’s imagination, and the final resolution feels somewhat rushed.

Catherine has good reasons to feel sorry for herself, but her self-pity, coupled with her dark preoccupations with sex and sudden death, makes her feel more like a sulky adolescent than a young woman of nineteen. I kept wanting to give her a good shake and tell her to get over herself! The supporting cast are all so monstrously drawn it is difficult to quite believe in any of them.

Not a bad read exactly, but one which disappointed my expectations.