The Pleasures of Men was one of the few books this year I actually bought of my own volition, having been too late for the review copies. It appealed to me so much that I wanted to read and review it regardless of its publication date and press campaign.
The cover was what struck me first. I think covers are extremely important in terms of establishing the tone and feel of the novels behind them – they can be as evocative as a piece of art (and in some cases they can be considered art in themselves). The cover of The Pleasures of Men instantly tells you the setting is Victorian (from the woman’s dress) and there is a murder mystery (big bloody knife) – but there is also the question of gender. The cover depicts a woman holding a bloody knife, but the title implies that either a man is the murderer or the woman’s murders are the result of the ‘pleasures’ of men, i.e. some sort of revenge for the treatment of women at the hands of men. None of this is clear and so we are intrigued and want to find out more. See how important covers are?
And what a fitting cover it is. Central character Catherine is an orphan living with her frankly weird old uncle in his house fully of creepy artefacts and dusty old books. We slowly discover more and more about her past, and why she believes herself to be evil. Meanwhile a spate of murders occur across London, all apparently committed by the same person. Catherine becomes obsessed with the killer, and follows the murders in the newspapers – even going so far as to visit some of the crime scenes to try and imagine what must have happened to these girls.
While the set-up of a Victorian serial killer preying on housemaids and prostitutes isn’t very original, author and historian Kate Williams takes the story down a new route by adding in Catherine’s obsession, and her own psychological issues. This is more like a modern detective novel or TV series in which the detective – amateur or professional – gets too caught up with the crimes and their story becomes as important as that of the murderer and the victims. The story focuses on Catherine as a person rather than the murderer – it is her story over anyone else’s.
Williams is also an expert at depicting in vivid detail life in Victorian London. We see all the grime and dirt, the sickness and disease, the poverty and misery. Catherine lives near Spitalfields – not considered a nice or safe area – and when she is obliged to attend social functions we see the different layers of London society and the different faces of the city.
As you can tell I really enjoyed this novel and tore through it quite quickly – I just had to find out the truth! There is the question of the identity of the murderer, but also Catherine’s past. Like the novels of Sarah Waters this is real ‘page-turner’ that is also expertly written and researched, and steers clear of trashiness or cliches. Definitely one of my favourite books of 2012.