The luxury of generally reading books that have stood the test of time is this; any issues I have with them are subjective and entirely personnel to me, the writer is probably long dead - I feel free to say what I like and I rarely find anything negative to say because after all a book doesn't become a classic because of it's many faults. Reading a book hot off the press is a different thing altogether, it makes me far more critical which is okay, but I find myself looking for faults which is not on the whole why I read.
The first twenty pages of 'The Whores' Asylum' didn't entirely bowl me over but I carried on, the next twenty pages were better, and by the third time I picked it up I realised I didn't want to put it down. The back blurb bills this as 'enjoyable gothic romp for fans of Sherlock Holmes, Sarah Waters, and Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell''. I can go along with the Holmes bit, haven't read any Sarah Waters and thought that 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' would really have benefited from some serious editing. I think there's also a bit of a debt/nod to Faber's 'The Crimson Petal and the White' and although Diana Pelham is not the heroine that Faber's Sugar is that's hardly a criticism. Initially, and this was the reason for my ambivalence until I got into the story, the language feels a bit contrived - to self conscious an approximation of Victorian idiom but either it settled down or I stopped noticing.
The story itself is a sort of mystery with a femme fatale at the centre of a web of men. Her nemesis is Edward Fraser who plays the role of best friend to two of her victims. Edward is a prudish, generally innocent young man, who immune to Diana's charms sees the worst in her. His intentions and motives are all for the best but it's through his agency that most of Diana's misfortunes befall her. The man they're both fighting for is Stephen Chapman - a brilliant young doctor, after that things get complicated...
Edward, Stephen, and Diana all tell different bits of the story ostensibly in letter form (though I doubt that Diana's section would really have been written, as suggested, for her unborn child - it's not the kind of thing you would want them to know but that's a little niggle) which works for me. Diana initially seems to be a villain but turns out to be something else entirely, Edward is flawed but likeable - a decent but sometimes misguided young man. Stephen is the object for both their passions and it's good to find a book with friendship at it's heart with all it's complications - it's not always about sex.
I loved the way Darby played around with my perceptions of who was in the right or wrong in a situation whilst all the time exposing the double standards in attitudes between men and women, between the respectable and those who've been caught out. It's not a perfect book but it's a real page turner, and better than that, is thought provoking. This is Darby's first book, it will be interesting to see what she does next, but personally I have very high hopes for future brilliance from her.