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The Pleasures of Men, By Kate Williams

Talent soars from London's squalid alleys

Kate Williams's haunting Victorian thriller opens with a compelling image of corruption.

Feral children creep at dusk over a Smithfield dust-heap, their naked heels pressing the juices of the rotting meat. This is the London of the "Hungry Forties", not yet the pompous capital of imperialism; rank, cholera-racked, clinging precariously to a squalid Regency glamour.

Orphaned Catherine Sorgeuil has come to live with her uncle in unfashionable Spitalfields, where she struggles to conform to the prototype of a prim unmarried miss. Surrounded by Mr Crenabon's sinister anthropological treasures, Catherine measures out the days of a stifling summer in reluctant stabs at propriety, but embroidery and call-paying fail to alleviate the darkness she believes she carries within her. She holds herself responsible for her young brother's abduction and disappearance and the consequent shattering of her safe bourgeois family, who send her to a lunatic asylum rather than confront her grief and guilt. Her only distraction is sharing the capital's obsession with a series of appalling murders, committed by the Man of Crows.

Catherine fancies her own brush with evil gives her an understanding of the killer, and as victims mount up, mutilated and abandoned in squalid alleys, she begins to write herself into his mind, trying to trap him through her own imagination. Then her maid, Grace, vanishes, and her net of ink becomes a web of cruelty, perversion and incest thrown horrifically close to the shuttered secrecy of her uncle's study.

The Pleasures of Men shares with Wolf Hall an ambitious, challenging concern with form combined with a pitch-perfect historical ear. Williams has a gift for grotesque sensuality, impregnating her city with a fine layer of clinging filth. The rot is not confined to the rookeries; les fleurs du mal bloom, deformed and twisted, beneath the tightly laced corsets of St James's Square.

As Catherine draws closer to the truth, she absorbs her quarry's revulsion at a social code which renders young women powerlessly ornamental, graceful lilies on the brink of festering. Her progress through London's slums has the hallucinatory quality of Dickens's night-walking passages, a series of hellish palimpsests which crumble beneath her feet, until it is never quite certain whether it is the killer she pursues or the spectre of her own imagined madness. They are both drunk, she sees, on the foul, heady vintage which suppurates from the cracked sore of the city, and only one of them will be absolved. But Catherine comes to see that she too is being manipulated; murderer and detective are part of a wider and yet more vicious game.

This intoxicating and disturbing novel is properly thrilling and extraordinarily well-written. Kate Williams is already an accomplished biographer; The Pleasures of Men shows a soaring talent let loose.

Lisa Hilton's most recent book, The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson