Kate Williams’s The Pleasures of Men explores a fictional pre-Jack the Ripper serial killer operating in London’s poor East End in the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Queen Victoria has just ascended the throne, leaving Great Britain in despair, as no one believes a young woman can deal with the ever-increasing problems of the Empire. London is in the grips of a serious recession and once-proud families are greatly reduced in their circumstances; many of those who were already less fortunate have turned to a life of crime in an attempt to merely survive. In the midst of the crime that abounds, a particularly insidious criminal lurks, a man who is killing and slaughtering young women in London’s East End. He is being called the Man of Crows — a pun on the collective noun, a murder of crows — because of the birdlike pose in which he leaves his victims.
Although they are people of some means, Catherine Sorgeiul and her uncle live in the poor neighborhood in which the Man of Crows lurks. Catherine’s own past is murky, with a terrible secret she desperately wants to conceal; her secret estranges her from those around her, even her uncle, who has begun to torment her with the realities of her past. With little else to do with her time, Catherine has begun to fixate on the Man of Crows, sure that the evil that lurks in her own past and heart is sufficient both to keep her safe from him and to help her understand him. As she begins writing about the murders, however, strange things begin happening and it seems that perhaps the Man of Crows may know about Catherine and her interest in him, and he may return the interest.
In The Pleasures of Men, Kate Williams draws a vivid picture of early Victorian London, particularly the ways in which a young woman could be completely controlled and kept down by the men in her life at his pleasure. Catherine’s voice is somewhat choppy at times due to her emotional distress, but Williams manages to keep the story moving throughout the near breakdown of her main character and narrator. Catherine’s semi-disassociation from reality actually serves to heighten the suspense as nearly every man in her life seems a plausible suspect to be the Man of Crows.
The Pleasures of Men is a very absorbing psychological historical suspense novel that will keep you guessing until the last page.