With such a beautiful cover and with the enticing subtitle “A novel of darkest London”, Laura Carlin’s The Wicked Cometh was impossible to resist. I was looking forward to reading it but, having seen a mixture of reviews over the last few weeks, some very positive and others less so, by the time I started it my expectations weren’t as high as they had been.
The novel is set in the early 1830s, during the reign of William IV, and opens with The Morning Herald reporting on the increasing number of men, women and children being declared missing in London. One young woman who has been following the news reports closely is Hester White; she is growing concerned about her cousin Edward who had arranged to meet her at Smithfield three weeks ago and has failed to arrive. Hester’s life has not been easy since the death of her parents a few years earlier; finding herself alone in the world she has been living with her father’s former gardener, Jacob, and his wife, Meg. Their home is a London slum, very different from the parsonage in rural Lincolnshire where Hester grew up, and she has been hoping that Edward can offer her an opportunity to start a new life away from the city.
When Hester is knocked down and injured by a carriage belonging to Calder Brock, suddenly another way of escape presents itself. Calder, who is a doctor, takes her to his family’s country estate, Waterford Hall, to recuperate, and explains to her that he would like her to stay and be educated by his sister Rebekah. With his interest in social reform, he hopes this experiment will show that even those from the poorest slums are capable of learning and improving themselves. Hester can already read and write, but is happy to pretend otherwise to avoid having to go back to Jacob and Meg. And so her lessons with Rebekah begin and a special friendship starts to form…
Everything I’ve described so far happens in the first half of the book and up to that point I found that I was really enjoying it. I liked Hester and although present tense first-person narration isn’t my favourite, her voice was strong and compelling. Her relationship with Rebekah felt natural and right, and I was pleased that it took time to develop. I was curious about the disappearances in London too and wanted to know more.
Then, in the middle of the book, there was a change of pace. As Hester and Rebekah began to investigate and uncover the truth, I felt that the author was trying too hard to incorporate every possible trope of the 19th century sensation novel, from family secrets to hidden documents to clandestine marriages. The story began to feel very melodramatic and contrived and lost its effectiveness. There were aspects of the plot that reminded me of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, as well as one or two developments that made me think of The Woman in White, and I suspect that if I hadn’t read so many similar books I would probably have enjoyed this one a lot more. This was a particular problem at the very end of the novel where something which should have been a big surprise was too easy to predict.
I did like Laura Carlin’s writing and the atmosphere she creates; The Wicked Cometh is already receiving a lot of attention and as a debut novelist I’m sure she has a successful career ahead of her. For me, though, this is a novel of two very different halves. Some readers will prefer, as I did, the slow scene-setting of the first half and others the dramatic revelations of the second. If it sounds like your sort of book, give it a try – maybe you’ll love it more than I did!
Thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.