Manual The Pleasures of Men

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But hindsight can be a dangerous thing.

The Pleasures of Men - A Novel by Kate Williams

No Victorian novelist would make such direct reference to the public events of his or her own time, and yet many of them were able to penetrate the social darkness and often perverse sexuality of their age in a way that evades Williams, for all her careful referencing of time and place. She is, it turns out, serving us a dose of gothic-lite, decaf Dickens, lacking the real thrills of the original gothic novels that Williams's heroine enjoys. The interlocking of male power, madness and violence has become overfamiliar, and any novel set in this period runs the risk of becoming a theme park ride with notes by Freud and Foucault.

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There's even a promise of some lesbian passion — sadly, never fully developed — reminiscent of the most recent successful pasticheur of the period, Sarah Waters. All these authors have proved reliable fodder for film and TV, and for all her insight as a historian, we're left with a feeling of reading something third or even fourth-hand, an adaptation of a pastiche of a pastiche.

Beyond the crinolines and whiskers, the real draw of the Victorian period is its reputation as an age of unashamedly melodramatic plotting. In fog and by candlelight, the modern reader can enjoy a thumping good story that we might feel a bit self-conscious about under neon light.

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Although there are passages of genuine tension and surprise in Williams's narrative, she lacks the sure hand of a Du Maurier or a Hamilton, who both use the steadily increasing claustrophobia of an iron-tight narrative as a perfect reflection of their heroine's entrapment. Williams sets a steady pace with a series of killings matched by her heroine's mounting fascination and terror.

She is exploring a substantial theme: a woman's attempt to define herself in a society created entirely by men. But her narrative is sidetracked by layers of false memories, suppressed memories predictably, much of the central character's dilemma can be traced back to a childhood trauma and the heroine's own imaginings of the lives of the murdered women.

The Pleasures of Men

When the time comes for the big reveal — who is the serial killer and how is he related to the heroine? When a murderer strikes, ripping open the chests of young girls and stuffing hair into their mouths to resemble a crow's beak, Catherine is fascinated, and devours news of his exploits. As the murders cause panic throughout the city, she comes to believe she can channel the voices of his victims and that they will lead her to The Man himself.

But she's already far closer than she realises - and lurking behind the lies she's been told about her past are secrets more deadly and devastating than anything her imagination can conjure.

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Certainly, I didn't like it. It was well written and should have been right up my street, but I just didn't take I am not sure what is was after reading this confusing murder mystery.

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