Laura Carlin’s debut novel combines history, mystery, gore and romance. The Wicked Cometh is a riches to rags (and back again) story that makes me thoroughly glad to live in the twenty-first century.
The story begins in 1831 as men, women and children begin to disappear from London’s filthy, poverty-stricken backstreets.
Hestor White has heard about the missing people but is focused on her own survival. The death of her father, a vicar, has forced her to near-destitution. She’s lost her comfortable life in rural England and has moved to a disease-ridden part of the capital city, where she relies on the charity of her lecherous former gardener and his family.
When a chance encounter throws Hester into the path of a philanthropic doctor she grabs the opportunity to leave the slums. In an Eliza-Doolittle-style-twist, the doctor wants his sister, Rebekah Brock, to educate Hester and prove the working classes’ intelligence.
The more Hester learns about strong-minded, active Rebekah the more she comes to care for her. The two women fall in love and begin a relationship, while investigating the disappearance of two Brock family maids.
Atmospheric and Gothic
I don’t always enjoy books written in the first person and present tense, but I’m glad I gave The Wicked Cometh a go. The plot’s slightly convoluted, with plenty of convenient coincidences, but the writing style adds to the atmosphere.
The author seems to have done a huge amount of research and launches the reader straight into the nineteenth century. The whole book’s packed with period details from offal-filled gutters to maids run-ragged. I felt I could almost see (and smell!) the slums navigated by the characters.
The pacing can be slow at points, but this meshes with the book’s gothic feel. The Wicked Cometh is full of dark moments; death and disease are common London’s alleyways and even grand country houses hide secrets.
Romance and Class Divisions
Hester and Rebekah’s unfolding love story acts as a spot of happiness in the middle of danger and bleak poverty, but don’t expect much fluffy romance. Their relationship is set against a backdrop of social prejudice and class division, Hester is impoverished and Rebekah’s uncle is desperate to marry his niece to any well-off male suitor.
I enjoyed the way the two women’s relationship developed and won’t be sorry if this book signals the start of a series. Hester is a likeable, relatable rich-girl-turned-poor and Rebekah acts as a proactive driving force in the couple’s investigations.
Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll admit that the ending included a few twists I didn’t see coming. The last chapters took me on an emotional bungee jump, between fear and relief, with a satisfying conclusion.
Verdict: If you like slow-paced historical romances make sure you give The Wicked Cometh a go. The appealing main characters and chilling mystery make this a solid debut novel.