The Devil is afoot in old Edinburgh, holding an innocent lass as hostage.
Or perhaps she’s holding him. Australian O’Neill paints late–19th-century Edinburgh as an image of the New Order wrenching the Old. Neatly divided between a tenement-packed old town and an almost excessively ordered new quarter, the ancient, apparently law-abiding city is alarmed by a series of brutal murders and a ghoulish grave-robbing. In the absence of the publicity-savvy chief inspector, responsibility for solving the crimes has fallen to Carus Groves, a self-righteous, plodding figure who lives with his sisters and spends evenings writing up his investigations as police adventures starring himself. He quickly suspects that he may not be a match for the criminal, and he is, for once, correct. The solution rests with an odd couple: Thomas McKnight, a forcibly retired professor of philosophy, and his friend Canavan, the erstwhile Irish watchman of an abandoned cemetery, having lost his own job in the wake of the lurid grave robbery. Bound by their misfortunes, temperaments, and fondness for long walks, McKnight and Canavan turn involuntary idleness into a search for the killer, a person strong enough to tear a grown man into three pieces in a matter of seconds. As well-read and reasonable as Inspector Groves is not, McKnight and Canavan follow a trail of clues leading to Evelyn Todd, a haunted young woman who works as a publisher’s assistant and whose story this turns out to be. Indeed, O’Neill opens with brief, disturbing, enigmatic scenes from Evelyn’s miserably orphaned childhood. But only as her team of friendly investigators works through the emerging details of her short and appallingly brutal life does the meaning of that opening chapter grow clear. Drawing on mesmerism, primitive psychoanalysis, pharmacology, philosophy, and deep human decency, Canavan and McKnight struggle to link the fragile young woman to the increasingly visible phantasm terrorizing the night streets.
As terrifying as a child’s nightmares—and as wonderful as waking from them.