Anthony O’Neill: The Lamplighter

Lamplighter - Anthony O'Neill

Over here in the Southern Hemisphere the days will soon be growing shorter, nights colder, fires lit, and extra bedclothes dragged out of camphor-smelling cupboards. It will be time to curl up with a Gothic thriller, telling of mutilated corpses and misty graveyards. And where better to locate such a tale than the city of Edinburgh, with its winding cobbled streets and reeking slums.

Our story opens with a homage to the lamplighters of Edinburgh, almost sixty of them in the 1890’s, who sallied forth towards twilight lighting the street lamps, to keep the more worthy citizens safe.

What a wonderful description of them from our author, Anthony O’Neill, master of so many voices:

…regulating themselves by the church bells and shirking only those darker tendrils of the Cowgate from which even the light recoiled. In less than two hours they knitted together a jewelled chain of lights that on clear evenings resembled an inverted cosmos of sparkling stars, and on nights of dense fog – when sea mist merged with chimney smoke, locomotive steam and the noxious emissions from overcrowded graves…helped enclose the city in an enormous glowing lampshade. They were the ‘leeries’- the lamplighters- and they were rarely seen in the sun.

We then move to the Fountainbridge Institute for Destitute Girls where Evelyn, the key female character is incarcerated, the superintendent bent on crushing her spirit. For this girl the lamplighter is a consoling presence in her day:

In a silence undisturbed by so much as the rustle of bed linen she would follow his cheerful whistle and crisscrossing advance up the street to their very own street lamp…

While she remains in the Institute he becomes a central figure of her imagination, and the extraordinary results of this can only be discovered by those who read this remarkable book.

Evelyn is removed from the Institute in mysterious circumstances and returns to our story some twenty years later.

Now the crimes begin. The first death is that of Professor Smeaton,

‘Torn open. As if by wild beasts.’

The deaths that follow are also mainly of upper-class men and characterised by such extreme violence it appears the victims have been torn apart by a savage animal of extraordinary strength.

Now our detectives appear. Carus Groves, Acting Chief Inspector of the Edinburgh City Police, for long living under the shadow of Chief Inspector Stuart Smith, who is absent posing for his waxwork image. Groves keeps a journal of all his cases and he is hoping against hope that he can solve what he has designated The Murderer from the Mews while Smith is away. Groves provides the humour in the story although he is by no means a figure of fun.

He has rivals in the figures of Thomas McKnight, Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh, and his friend, Canavan the Irish nightwatchman of an eerie cemetery.

Deep into the following night a clinging haar swept off the firth with the east wind and crept like a tide of floodwater across the fields of Craigmillar and Liberton…Well after midnight Canavan heard a groan and an unearthly creak, like that of a crypt being opened, and saw a whorl of disturbed mist rise up and dissipate in the south-east corner. He picked up his feeble lamp and headed out to investigate.

McKnight is a disaffected professor and these murders interest him. Canavan, though uneducated, is widely-read, with a vast knowledge of philosophy and religion and unlike McKnight a believer, a kind and sanguine man, who tries to feed all the stray dogs in the city out of his meagre means. McKnight and Canavan could be seen to be based on Holmes and Watson, but they are more equal in their disputation.

We see the growing events through the eyes of the investigators. Groves strongly suspects Evelyn plays a central part in these murders, but it is McKnight and Canavan who find the hideous secret that involves her and the powers of darkness.

The argument and investigation is tight and thrilling and hard to describe without spoiling the pleasure for the first-time reader. Enough to say this book is engrossing and brilliantly written.

Gert has long been a fan of Anthony O’Neill and can never understand why his writing is not more widely known and loved. The Lamplighter is his second book. His first, Scheherazade, is a brilliant revisiting of The 1001 Nights. Then comes The Empire of Eternity, a mingling of Napoleon, ancient curses and Victorian intrigue; next and different again, is his simultaneously hilarious and very scary work The Unscratchables, a detective novel where all the characters are dogs and cats. The first page gives us a taste of the world of the seedy dog detective:

I went to the kitchen and got out a can of Chump’s. I peeled it open with a fancy electric gizmo-something I’d snared in a squad raffle-so I could eat straight from the tin without jagging my tongue. I splashed some water into a bowl. At the sofa I hunted for the remote control, but it was buried so deep under biscuit crumbs and soiled rugs I couldn’t even smell it

And the good news is, after several years, he has a new book, The Dark Side, coming out at the end of June. Here is the first par of the blurb:

In this dark and gripping sci-fi, an exiled police detective arrives at a lunar penal colony just as a psychotic android begins a murderous odyssey across the far side of the moon.

And that’s only the beginning…

Watch out for our review.

8 thoughts on “Anthony O’Neill: The Lamplighter

  1. The Lamplighter definitely sounds like one for me – Edinburgh, a murder mystery and Anthony O’Neill! Marvellous description of lighting the lamps – that alone would make me want to read the book.

    1. He is a remarkable writer and the atmosphere he creates is at once terrifying and heart rending. His range is vast. He can do hard boiled detective, Victorian Gothic and now venturing into Sci Fi. We never heard if the film of The Dark Side has gone ahead, though.

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