I've enjoyed Sheridan Le Fanu's creepy short stories, and was rather expecting his novel, Wylder's hand, to be more of the same. Although it's certainly a creepy tale, and there may (or may not) be ghosts involved, Wylder's is more of a classic crime thriller, than a horror story. Wylder's Hand was a particular favourite of Dorothy L. Sayers, who mentions it several times in the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery The nine tailors; her heroine, Harriet Vane, is such a fan that she is researching J. Sheridan Le Fanu in Gaudy Night.

It's Gothic, it's about crime, it's Victorian, and it's a favourite of many of my best beloved writers. I should have loved it....To be honest, I found Wylder's hand very difficult to get into. The first half of the book was hard going: slimy villains gnashing their teeth "as was their wont", some truly cringeworthy dialogue, and one female character who is more marble than Pygmalion's favourite woman. There were ghosts (or possibly lunatics) and lunatics (or possibly ghosts). Aaaaaggghhhh!

However, difficult and irritating as the start might be, Wylder's Hand is worth staying with, because it turns into a cracking crime story with a rather more serious side to it too. The Wylders and the Brandons, known for years for their penchant for cousins marrying cousins, are about to intermarry yet again; but when Mark Wylder disappears on the eve of his wedding, his bride-to-be, Dorcas Brandon, decides that enough is enough, and instead of marrying as advised by the Dowager Lady Chelford (a redoubtable grande dame), she marries for love, marrying a distant cousin, the odious, Stanley Lake.

Wylder's disappearance causes problems for his brother, the sweet vicar, William, who, deeply in debt needs his brother's help to avoid falling into the clutches of wicked lawyer, Larkin, who is running a Victorian version of a payday loans scheme. But, as Mark Wylder's letters to his solicitor become ever odder, it looks as though there is something rather more sinister going on than just a runaway bridegroom. And what exactly do Rachel Lake and her brother know about Wylder's disappearance?

Inevitably the novel has the mores of the period, and occasionally this can be a little confusing. But its period feel is also one of its big assets. Any lover of Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Wilkie Collins, will enjoy this with its blend of crime, suspense, a touch of horror, strong female characters, and some genuinely villainous villains. I rather think that Trollope fans will like it too. The two novels that I was most reminded of in reading Wylder's hand were Lady Audley's secret and Trollope's Framley Parsonage. Both novels pre-date the Le Fanu novel by a few years, and were, I suspect, big influences on it. Debt, and the maintenance of debt, plays a big role in Wylder's, and it is this, I think, that makes the novel, like Framley Parsonage, surprisingly relevant for a modern audience.

If the plot-line sometimes calls for rather too much suspension of belief, and if it is occasionally a little creaky, a lot can be forgiven when set against the denouement of the central crime, and the complexities of competing cases of fraud. I still think that Le Fanu's short stories are more enjoyable, and more tightly written; but any lover of Victorian fiction shouldn't miss out on Wylder's Hand.


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