As an avid follower of my blog posts you are undoubtedly aware that my 2015 has featured a lamentable dearth of palatable fiction. Yet even now things begin to look upperly. Finally I have achieved literary contentment, finding a tale about which to crow to the heavens: By the gods, read this book!
The Bedlam Detective by Stephen Gallagher is everything a book should be. Set in 1912 England, our main character Sebastian Becker, a former police office and Pinkerton agent, works for the British government’s Masters of Lunacy observing men of property (i.e. peers) whose sanity is in question. It’s a low-paying job with no prestige and Becker’s fortunes have fallen rather far.
This decline is due largely to the situation of his son Robert who is autistic but high-functioning. Sebastian and his wife are told that the boy is dull-witted, not suitable for a respectable job. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. The boy is brilliant (as he will demonstrate to his father!) but hindered by social limitations. Whilst living in America they hear of a school in England that makes the effort to work with children like Robert, so they quickly return to their homeland. However, the best job Sebastian is able to obtain is that of the “Bedlam detective.”
Our tale opens with Becker looking into the case of a highly-respected peer, Sir Owain Lancaster, who, upon returning from a disastrous South American expedition, has seemingly lost some of the crayons in his box so to speak. During Becker’s investigation, two girls are abused and murdered on the peer’s property, mirroring a similar incident from 15 years previous when two girls survived a comparable attack. One girl (now woman) has no memory of the tragedy and the other will not speak of it. While investigating Sir Owain’s sanity Sebastian also becomes involved in the murder inquiry as he believes Lancaster to be a likely suspect.
Sir Owain, on the other hand, believes that huge, invisible beasts were responsible for the attacks; the same beasts that followed him home from the Amazon jungle; the same beasts that killed hundreds in his entourage. In fact, the only survivors of the expedition were Lancaster and his botanist, a man who is now locked away in a mental institution after attacking his sister. Hmmm. Huge invisible beasts. Alive while everyone else is dead. It begins to seem that Sir Owain’s sanity isn’t really in question, it’s non-existent. But does this mean that he killed the expedition party and/or abused and killed children?
So to summarize: sordid mystery, down-on-luck protagonist, lunacy and a cursed expedition worthy of Lovecraft’s or Conan Doyle’s pen. Add to that a traveling freak show, glimpses into the nascent film industry and a seemingly sane asylum inmate. The mix is stunning. And of course it wouldn’t work were not the writing exquisite. So if you’re ready for a tumble into the world 100 years past and the horrors that it concealed, by the gods, read this book!