Walter Starling – newly engaged as a footman in the house of Dr. Richard Reynard – is shy, naive, and religiously inclined. His sheltered upbringing hasn’t prepared him for the world he encounters hidden behind the facade of upper-class Victorian respectability.
Dr. Reynard, dashing bachelor and celebrated London surgeon, is bored of the empty rituals of high society. Under the influence of Lord Spearman, a degenerate and predatory socialite obsessed with pain and domination, Reynard is introduced to the dark underworld of homosexual London – a world of secret brothels and flagellation houses, of encounters in dark doorways, of bizarre sexual cabarets performed in the dead of night.
But as Spearman draws him into ever more extreme forms of sex, Reynard finds himself turning to his young servant for protection. And Walter Starling finds his firmest principles under siege from without and within as he battles with his growing feelings towards his master and tries to avoid being sucked into London’s sexual maelstrom.
Review by Hayden Thorne
Black’s book is an erotic fantasy – endless sex scenes linked together with flimsy plotting and a host of unlikable characters in the mid- to late-1880s London.
I began reading the book with one bias: I’m not a fan of BDSM or kink of any kind. Yes, I’m fascinated with the psychology behind BDSM, but I don’t actively look for it in my erotic fiction, and neither do I get turned on by it when I do read it. I can appreciate a well-written kink scene, however, and I tried to approach Doctor Reynard’s Experiment with an open mind. In the end, it wasn’t the BDSM elements in the novel that turned me off.
The sex scenes are plentiful, yes. Too plentiful, in fact, that any flimsy excuse for a quick fuck becomes par for the course. Some are more erotic than others. Some are more disturbing than others. There are a number of scenes involving non-consensual sex, several involving torture, a few with blood, quite a bit involving golden showers, and a few mildly scatalogical scenes – there’s about an average of about two sex scenes (two and a half, maybe?) per chapter. But who’s counting? Richard Reynard, the doctor, is seduced by his friend, Lord Spearman, into the world of Victorian sado-masochistic gay sex. Walter Starling, the young servant, gets dragged into the dark world of forbidden pleasures, but unlike his employer, he manages to keep his head (by and large, at least) and tries to fight his way out of his predicament – only to fall into the clutches, gothic heroine-like, of the bizarre and evil Lord Spearman.
The highlight of this novel is Black’s descriptions and his use of period detail in creating a dark, atmospheric, and dangerous underworld. We’re looking at the poorest of the poor, the streetwalkers, the pimps, the long, miserable line of paying customers who range from filthy foreign sailors to respectable clerks to a bishop. I love the fact that Black takes his time in developing every scene with so many details, and I didn’t feel as though any one scene was better described than another. With such uniform care, I found myself easily immersed in Victorian London, all my senses engaged. The city became more of a live, organic thing – much more so than the characters that are supposed to move the plot.
The downside? Everything else, I’m afraid. The characters are very unrealistic and hopelessly unlikable in varying degrees. Lord Spearman is evil incarnate – two-dimensional in that regard, which is a shame. He could have been a wonderfully seductive serpent-like character, but he’s written as this addicted, pock-marked, insane aristocrat with very little personality and, in the end, very fuzzy and comically absurd motivations for what he does to Reynard and Starling.
Walter Starling, the sweet, innocent boy who gets entangled and ends up selling his body to survive, is the strongest character on the whole, but his descent into sexual corruption while in Dr. Reynard’s employ has a distinct edge of fantasy around it. Considering his strong Christian beliefs, it’s surprising to see him so easily swayed. He’s raped by a fellow servant in the middle of a harrowing, nightmarish scene involving religion and damnation as his conscience struggles against itself, and yet Walter actually gets turned on by his violation. In fact, after a while, he looks forward to being repeatedly assaulted.
Reynard’s the weakest character of the lot because he goes about his days with only two actively-firing synapses. He has no will, no courage. He weakly argues against his friend when he catches Spearman doing something so obviously despicable and unlawful. Conversation between the two friends in such a scene can be summed up thusly:
Reynard: This is outrageous! I’m sick of your twisted schemes! Get out!
Spearman: There’s an orgy tonight.
The romance between Reynard and Starling isn’t even there though, technically, Starling’s supposed to save Reynard from himself. However, there are no sparks between them at the outset. Sure, Starling gets promoted to valet, leapfrogging over another servant who deserves the promotion more, but what does that exactly mean for the two supposed lovers? Reynard has a young, beautiful, innocent valet, and he spends his time mocking Walter’s religious beliefs in the boy’s face. He kicks Walter out of his house under false impressions, and while he soon learns his mistake, he doesn’t even bother to look for the boy or send inquiries out for him. Instead, once he realizes his mistake, he simply rolls over and falls asleep. What a charmer.
That leads to one of the weaknesses in the plotting. The romance was never there to begin with, so when the climax commences (no pun intended), the two coming together (absolutely NO pun intended) in the end feels forced, false, contrived. Suddenly realization dawns on both characters: “I’m meant to be with him! I love him!” And more sex ensues. The main weakness of the plot really lies in the way the story unfolds and how things actually happen in the last third of the book – a tad late, yes, with quite a bit of information and plot twists crammed in. There was so much time spent in exploring kinky sex scene after kinky sex scene in the first two-thirds of the novel that space seemed to have run out, and we’re force-fed all sorts of information that make the plot far more convoluted (and unsatisfactorily resolved) than it should be.
Doctor Reynard’s Experiment is meant to be something like a morality tale since it has all the trappings of one, but it isn’t. Everyone (Walter a little less so, maybe) seems to enjoy every second spent in sexual degradation that their redemption in the end rings false.