The Lamplighter

by Anthony O'Neill

Published by Scribner

320 pages, 2003

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Trouble in Mind

Reviewed by Sarah Weinman


The historical thriller subgenre as we know it today may not have started with the 1994 publication of Caleb Carr's The Alienist, but it might as well have. That novel's combination of historical accuracy, psychological depth and crime investigation proved to be a runaway success and paved the way for a great many other such books. Most paled by comparison -- including Carr's own sequel, The Angel of Darkness (1997) -- but a few novels managed to take Carr's recipe and mix things up just a little bit more. Recent notable efforts along these lines include Elizabeth Redfern's The Music of the Spheres (2001), which blended a discerning look into late-18th-century London with lush characterization and a densely plotted yarn involving astronomy, musicianship and espionage; and Lisa Appignanesi's Paris Requiem (2001), which managed to combine a gripping mystery with a very thoughtful examination of the notorious 1890s Dreyfus Affair and its residual affects on Parisians.

When done well, the aim of this particular subgenre is to place a series of crimes, whatever their level of brutality, in some kind of historical context. These novels also examine the motivation of the crimes and of the protagonists who seek to solve them. Finally, there is some element of history that ties in directly with the killings, such that the eventual conclusion is a surprise.

Why bring all of this up? Only to illustrate how Anthony O'Neill's second novel, The Lamplighter, is a worthy addition to this subgenre, yet tears apart all those boundaries to create something quite different. Although originality is not a term to use lightly, it might well be applied in this case. At the very least, O'Neill's book is a dazzling effort that manages to incorporate a number of disparate ideas into a thrilling, disturbing and gut-wrenching whole.

The story begins in mid-19th-century Scotland, at a seedy, impoverished Edinburgh orphanage, where young Evelyn Todd is resigned to a life without real family, only transient friendships, and a mistrust of authority. However, one day, much to her surprise, she is plucked out of obscurity and into the waiting arms of a well-to-do gentleman calling himself her father. With nowhere else to go, Evelyn naturally says good-bye to the only life she's ever known, even as she may have chosen a fate much, much worse than she'd ever imagined.

Now, fast-forward 20 years, to 1886. Brutal crimes are accumulating in Edinburgh's shadowy thoroughfares. A university professor is found ripped to shreds, his body parts strewn across several blocks. A colonel's grave is dug up, 14 years after his death. A lighthouse keeper is murdered. The only obvious connections between these incidents are their ferocity and the cryptic messages, written in foreign languages, that have been left at the crime scenes. But what are police to make of notes such as "Ce Grand Trompeur" and "Innocentium Prosecutor"?

As the crimes mount in number, two investigations are conducted. The official one is led by Inspector Carus Groves, who at first jumps at the chance to probe these killings. His exploits have long been overshadowed by those of his superior, known to all and sundry as "The Wax Man," thanks to his being immortalized as an exhibit in the city's wax museum. That's an honor only Great Detectives can achieve, and poor, conceited Groves, who has been polishing up his memoirs for as long as he's been a policeman, wants desperately to be similarly honored. But this latest investigation doesn't seem likely to win him renown, as the clues pile up and his memoir entries bear less and less resemblance to the truth. Speculation mounts that the murders couldn't possibly have been the work of a human being. A noted expert in forensic medicine suggests they are the work of a saber-tooth tiger. Or perhaps some kind of animal hunting for prey. Then there's the matter of Evelyn Todd, now in her early 30s, who has mysteriously reappeared in Edinburgh. She claims to have dreamed of these ghastly events in some detail, and insists that the murderer is a lamplighter she'd often heard working outside her orphanage window as a girl. But is she a crackpot? Or is she somehow involved? Whichever the case, it becomes clear to Groves that he's dealing with a deeply troubled woman, and the fact that she seems to be connected to each successive murder is not helping matters at all.

The second, most unofficial, investigation is spearheaded by Thomas McKnight, an increasingly disillusioned professor of logic and metaphysics, assisted by his friend, Joseph Canavan, an Irish laborer and gravedigger. That a friendship has developed between two men of such disparate backgrounds is rather surprising, especially in an era when class distinctions prevailed rather strongly. Yet their differences in age, physical appearance, social status and education fall away as they discuss matters of logic and philosophy -- and later, the murders themselves. When Canavan wonders what makes them so suited to investigating what the police cannot, McKnight responds: "A talent. A vocation. In my case, a predilection for unraveling layers, which I fear to this point has been unhappily squandered. In your case, assuming you're willing to join me, an enslaving propensity for good deeds."

Like Groves, this pair soon recognizes the connection between the murders and Miss Todd. As the crimes increase in ferocity and become more bizarre, and with Evelyn's behavior growing more suspicious, the clues point McKnight to a conclusion that he, an atheist, would not ordinarily believe so readily. The truth, it seems, involves something far beyond the realm of the present world -- even beyond the reaches of logic and order -- and may well be of a satanic nature. McKnight shares his conclusions with Canavan:

"I know what this must seem like," the Professor admitted generously at one stage. "A wizened old man frayed by cynicism and disillusionment latching onto fantastical theories with the enthusiasm of a doctor testing revolutionary antidotes. But I stand by the logic of my conclusions. It is not my intention to become famous by this announcement, but I will make it cautiously anyway: in the young lady Evelyn I believe we have found a being who is not just another thread in the weave of reality, but one who is able to knit her imagination into its very fabric."

As logic gives way to phantasmagoria and philosophy mutates into madness, McKnight and Canavan take on an evil they never dreamed possible and set out not only to solve the current murders, but to challenge the very notion of existence. This tale's final showdown, as outlandish and fantastical as it is, makes a horrible sort of sense as it finally brings together all of the hanging threads -- of murder, metaphysics and Evelyn Todd's tormented life.

O'Neill keeps his cast of characters to a minimum, which works very effectively here. Little is made of how the murders are reported in local newspapers, or of the panicked frenzy that Edinburgh's citizenry must feel as these crimes continue. Instead, focus is maintained on the slightly clueless Groves and the more intellectual McKnight and Canavan. Their flaws and biases are readily apparent as they all investigate the violence from markedly different vantage points. Then there is Evelyn; a more troubled lass, one could not find. Yet though she is, in many ways, powerless to stop events, she is a richly drawn, complicated woman who still manages to take fate into her own hands.

The Lamplighter cleverly metamorphoses from a slowly building serial-killer tale into something much more compelling, delving deeply into logic, the existence of humankind and ruminations on ideas espoused by such philosophers as René Descartes. One thinks, therefore one is; but if one thinks, can that person be responsible for a whole host of other thoughts and resultant behaviors? Can one person be held ultimately to blame for a series of seemingly interconnected, tragic events? More frighteningly, can someone actually project the entire existence of other human beings? Watching Canavan and McKnight grapple with questions such as these is nothing short of chilling, with each successive revelation proving more shocking than the previous one.

Australian author O'Neill skillfully weaves a tale that gains momentum with each successive page, yet also involves much thought and questioning. This book assumes the reader is of reasonable intelligence and able to follow all the philosophical flights of fancy, something I appreciated very much. There's something refreshing about having one's mind slightly altered and in acquiring new patterns of thought after finishing a thriller.

O'Neill's previous novel, Scheherazade (2002), was an epic variation on the classic story and quite different from what may be expected in a crime fiction writer's backlist. Still, with The Lamplighter, he demonstrates a level of skill that far outclasses many veteran thriller fictionists. If his next book is as riveting and intellectually challenging as this one, he has quite the career ahead of him. This is a writing voice not to be missed. | March 2003


Sarah Weinman works as a bookseller and is completing her master's degree in Forensic Science. She has written articles and reviews for Tart City, Shots magazine and Books 'n Bytes. A Canadian by birth and inclination, she now lives in New York City.