THE title is a feint, a pun, a reference to a guillotine of sorts and Kate Foster’s debut novel is an invitation to a beheading.

We’re in a very pre-Enlightenment Edinburgh, 1679 to be exact, to hear a fictionalised account of a true story – the life and violent death of Lady Christian Nimmo.

Christian was accused of murdering Lord James Forrester in the grounds of Corstorphine Castle. He was her uncle and her lover.

The novel is dually narrated by Christian and Forrester’s maid, Violet (Foster’s invention), who is also a sex worker from the High Street. As Buck Mulligan from Ulysses has it – life ran very high in those days.

The capital smelled high too. Foster captures the excremental stench of Auld Reekie with brio, hits us with its ammoniacal hogo.

Before working for Mrs Fiddes (a madam, an “old boot”, running a brothel on Bell’s Close) we see Violet sitting in the streets all day “in the freezing fug that comes seeping up the closes from the Nor Loch, bringing the stink of the flesh of its drowned witches”.

Violet has had enough of men and their abuse – you might picture her as a Stormy Daniels from, say, Niddrie. Christian is posher, of course.

Class snobberies, as prevalent then as now, are a persistent bass-note in the book.

If city life was cramped and whiffy, rat-ridden and pestilential, then Corstorphine country life is depicted as being more idyllic in a strictly visual sense but still stinking of sexual hypocrisy.

Foster gives us a place marked by superstition and oppressive tittle-tattle, where dourly pious kirk elders poke “fingers of accusation” and punish women with the repentance stool and the branks, the latter a disgusting instrument of torture fitted to the face.

Foster’s imaginary Edinburgh is cinematic with its flashbacks and switches in perspective, her story less baroque than Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth perhaps but every bit as grotesque.

Foster presents a city where mutton pies are sold to the crowds at hangings. These days, Bovril makes the experience of gorging them more appealing over at Tynecastle or Easter Road when Hearts and Hibs play.

Forrester is a predator, a groomer, a stalker, an abuser, but Foster is careful not to make him a cartoon figure of evil. His type, she more than hints, is still around; there’s the touch of a certain contemporary golf course owner about him.

Forrester can see Christian faces a choice between a bored sexless marriage with the foppish Andrew Nimmo or the disgrace of an affair.

And Christian? Foster has her as a Celtic Madame Bovary in her boldness, who, despite her protestations, is every bit the perfect Edinburgh lady in her black velvet swatch imported by Nimmo from Italy.

THE minor characters here are expertly drawn as with Christian’s advocate Dalhousie who is “Saturday evening ruddy” and has “the air of roast beef and rich sauce. Of red wine and pipe smoke and a win at cards”.

Then there’s Forrester’s boozy wife, “sour and stiff like a stick of rhubarb, florid-faced, and her words unpeeled from her, fibrous”.

The language and pace of The Maiden is fluent and driving: Foster uses vernacular like “keek” and “scunnered” and “wabbit” to colour her tale as brightly as Nimmo’s silks. She has a way with simple, hard-won similes as with members of a court sitting “straight and tidy as piano keys”.

True confession: I came to The Maiden with a degree of reluctance given a bad misconception about its title (with its hints of Mills & Boon) and its chintzy cover.

But after throwing aside the latest over-long novel by A Very Important American Author I was quickly gripped.

Offers to film Foster’s novel should follow if there’s any sense in this world. A suggested soundtrack for this brilliant horror show might include Adultery by The Scars, formerly of Edinburgh’s Tap o’ Lauriston, or any of Alasdair Roberts’s murder ballads.

Edinburgh, with its history of institutionalised misogyny, doesn’t exactly come out smelling of roses here but then a West Coast person still aghast at its bouf of brewery today would say that.

Edinburgh, Foster writes, “has a darkness, even in broad daylight”. Glasgow remains miles better.

This is an extremely promising debut by Foster.