Anthony O’Neill’s psychological thriller centers around Evelyn Todd, an orphan who returns to Edinburgh after twenty years in Ireland. Soon after her arrival, a University of Edinburgh professor is killed, torn apart as if by a huge savage beast. Inspector Carus Groves and Professor Thomas McKnight begin to suspect independently that Evelyn may be connected to this and subsequent murders. McKnight is aided by Joseph Canavan, who works at a cemetery where one of the killings takes place. Canavan, though somewhat apprehensive, feels tender affection for the unusually strange young woman.
O’Neill’s gothic tale is full of period detail, offering a vivid portrait of life in late Victorian Edinburgh. There is also a bit of social criticism, for the mystery evolves from young Evelyn’s brutal mistreatment at an orphanage. While The Lamplighter can be seen as a parable about the dangers of religious extremism, O’Neill’s primary goal is to entertain, and he does so by making McKnight and Groves strong, flawed characters. Both are vain and pompous, and excerpts from Groves’s self-serving memoir-in- progress are delightful. O’Neill also has exceptional skills at descriptive writing, especially when Canavan and O’Neill descend into hell itself in quest of the supernatural resolution to the crimes.
In an interview with Publishers Weekly, O’Neill cited Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Brontes as influences, and he successfully attempts an approximation of a slightly stuffy Victorian style. While some may also note similarities to Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971), the contemporary work The Lamplighter more closely resembles is Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (1994) because of the strong characters, period detail, and use of psychology.