Anthony O'Neill

"The Lamplighter"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 18, 2003)

"There were nearly sixty of them in Edinburgh and they swarmed out of their crevices at dusk and swept through the city in a systematic raid on the streets, closes, wynds,and parks…In less than two hours they knitted together a jeweled chain of lights that on clear evenings resembled an inverted cosmos of sparkling stars and on nights of dense fog…helped enclosed the city in an enormous glowing lampshade. They were the 'leeries'-the lamplighters-and they were rarely seen in the sun."

The Lampligher by Anthony O'NeillThe streets of Edinburgh in 1886 run with blood as a series of bizarre deaths and dismemberments, possibly by some huge form of wild animal, haunt the public imagination and send the police force into high dudgeon. Professor Alexander Smeaton, a conservative professor of Ecclesiastical Law is found torn into several pieces, and Carus Groves, Acting Chief Inspector of the Edinburgh City Police, gets the case-his first real chance to solve a high profile crime and gain the recognition he thinks deserves. Soon after, the remains of Col. Horace Munnoch, fourteen years dead, are disinterred, by someone or something which has dug down to it with bare hands (or claws). A lighthouse keeper, whose death the previous month had been thought unrelated, is suddenly connected to these other deaths, and other, equally ferocious murders soon follow. A frail young woman, Evelyn Todd, is thought to be at the root of these horrifying crimes.

Evelyn, as we discover at the beginning of the novel, has had an unfortunate past. Taken to the Fountainbridge Institute for Destitute Girls as a small child in the mid-1860's, she grew up under the strict influence of Mr. Lindsay, who reined in her imagination and punished her for her flights of fancy, especially the stories about a lamplighter, a figure usually beloved by children, with which she entertained the other children; these stories were punishable by beatings because they deviated from the strict theology of his school, not incidentally the site of a former slaughterhouse. When a mysterious man, James Ainslie, Laird of Millenhall, appeared, claiming to be her father, she was released into his care, but this was not a "rescue" for Evelyn. At his estate, where he called her "Eve," she was imprisoned in rooms through which she could not see the out-of-doors, though Ainslie provided watercolors and inks and allowed her to draw and paint.

Denied the soft feelings which nurture children, Evelyn led a frightened and solitary life in Millenhall, taking refuge in her paintings, in which she usually included an avuncular gentleman in peaked cap, blue jacket, and gray scarf, whom she referred to as "Leerie," a lamplighter. During a terrible storm one night, however, she smelled an unpleasant odor, her bedroom chilled, and her breath condensed in clouds. In terror she ran out of the room, only to be forced to return by Ainslie, who "prodded her back…as though offering a lamb to some beast of prey." Frozen in disbelief at the incarnation standing at the far side of her bed, she gaped in astonishment. It was Leerie, the formerly benign character from all her paintings, come alive, in peaked cap, blue jacket, and gray scarf. "He beckoned her forward and she moved trancelike into the room. Ainslie shut the door behind them, and twenty years later the streets were red with blood."

* * *

An 1886 murder spree in Edinburgh leads investigators to Evelyn, now in her twenties, as they try to discover more about her mysterious past. Evelyn has had vivid and revelatory dreams about each of the murders, though she insists that she has not been present, has no real, firsthand knowledge of any of the murders, and that she does not know about them ahead of time. The murdered men are all members of a secret society, the Mirror Society, whose membership also includes James Ainslie, Evelyn's "father." Of the murders, Evelyn says only that she believes them to have been committed by "the lamplighter." The reader cannot help wondering if the lamplighter, who carries fire to light the lamps of the city, is, in reality, Lucifer, whose name, literally translated, means "carrier of fire."

In an unusual narrative twist, O'Neill employs two sets of characters who try to track Evelyn and ascertain her relationship to these murders. Carus Groves and his assistant, Pringle, are trying to solve the police cases involving the law and its penalties, while Professor Thomas McKnight, Professor of Logic and Metaphysics, and his Irish friend Canavan, a night watchman at the graveyard, are trying to solve the larger questions of who Evelyn really is, why is she able to see the crimes in complete detail in her dreams, and whether she may represent the "devil inherent in all of us. A primeval instinct, a fundamental component of evolution."

As McKnight and Canavan follow Evelyn through the mist and surprising heat one terrifying Edinburgh night, they, like so many literary predecessors, descend into Hades in an effort to rescue this "fine and reputable young woman" from the devil they believe resides within her. The reader is drawn into the metaphysical and theological debate regarding the nature of evil, its connection both to the imagination and reality, and the extent to which mankind has free will or control. O'Neill gives us only as much psychological insight as people possessed during that period, using the vocabulary of religion and the new perceptions which resulted from Darwin's Origin of the Species to try to explain those aspects of human nature which Freud and the psychoanalysts later developed into a new science at the turn of the century.

As Gothic and atmospheric as this novel is, the author's primary concern is not thrills and chills. This is a serious philosophical inquiry into the nature of God and the Evil One. Through Evelyn, O'Neill raises questions of what selfhood is, at least as it was perceived pre-Freud, and as we explore the many aspects of crime and man's desire to control outcomes, we come to a clearer understanding of the universal desire to put events into an understandable metaphysical context. O'Neill is a fine writer whose use of vivid verbs and lively description helps to animate the philosophical debate. The action here is non-stop. All the reader has to do is figure out what is real and what is not, a task which is not as easy as it may seem.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 24 reviews

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About the Author:

Anthony O'Neill is the son of an Irish policeman and Australian stenographer. He lives in Melbourne, Australia and is a full-time writer. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014