Still on shore leave from Moby Dick.
Believe it or not, I steer clear of thriller, although most of the books I read have a thrilling moment or two. And by thrilling I don't mean, how awesome! Rather, thrilling as in tense, climactic, scary, hangs-by-a-thread, that sort of thing. But a story that calls itself a thriller right out, well, that is a little too energetic for my taste. So a few weeks after I bought The Bedlam Detective (Crown Publishers, 2012), I was reading the notes and quotes on the back and learned that the author, Stephen Gallagher is considered a leading British thriller-writer, which put me off the whole enterprise for a bit.
But you know, it is set in early 20th c. England, one of my favorite literary landscapes (see any review of a Charles Todd novel for more on that), which is comforting in a way, especially if you are still looking for escape from the this-can't-end-well-for-someone watery world of whaling. Detection in this era is all in the mind, and done at the speed of ponderous early motors and bicycles rather than on cell phones and computers. Instinct is trusted more, since there isn't technology to quickly support or disprove a theory. Our Heroes are usually brilliant or well-educated or deeply experienced or some combination thereof, and this makes for more nuanced characters and thoughtful plot development.
The Bedlam Detective is sort of nickname for Our Hero, Sebastian Becker, who works as a special investigator for the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy, which is a real thing. The ViL, was basically psych housecalls on the rich and loony. If there was concern that a person of means was losing it, and thereby not able to control his or her property, the investigator was despatched to determine how far gone she or he was. In this instance, the ViL is interested in the status of a well-known industrialist and explorer, Sir Owain Lancaster who seemed perfectly normal, in a megomaniacal captain-of-industry way, until an expedition up the Amazon went terribly wrong and his account of the fantastic events and beasts encountered on that journey were widely denounced as a hoax. Now Sir Owain lives with a controlling doctor and loyal driver in increasingly shabby surroundings on his estate, his fortune dwindling, .
In real life, and in this story, the ViL himself was Sir James Crichton-Brown, a noted psychiatrist of the late 19th and early 20th c. What an interesting idea, that the government oversaw this process, hiring experts of course, but still, they answered to Crown. Such investigations were deeply entangled with property, and apparently might be instigated by family members who had their own interests in getting their hands on your stuff, so there were a lot of angles. If you were of the stature to be investigated by the ViL, and declared insane, you might end up in a reasonably plush suite at the Broadmoor Asylum (like the other doctor, in chapter 40), with your assets under the control of a Master of Lunacy appointed by the Crown. If you didn't have any assets, well, lunacy's just another word for nothing left to lose. I suppose that this was all considered an innovation and part of the reform of psychiatric care, but it all seems a bit harsh and hierarchical.
As Becker arrives in the town near Sir Owain's estate, he discovers a terrible crime has taken place: two girls have gone missing, and are found, brutally murdered. The attack on them is reminiscent of one years earlier on two other local girls, who survived, albeit emotionally damaged. The two threads of the attacks and the state of Sir Owain's mind appear to be intersecting, at least, Sebastian thinks they are, but Gallagher keeps it messy enough that you can never really settle with the obvious and even Sebastian can't tie it up until the very end.
There is also a kind of pointless bit involving Sebastian's wife and family, which strikes me now as just existing to move time forward in the story, but doesn't serve any other purpose. Sebastian's autistic son provides a useful clue, but again, seems more as a cog in the plot machine than an interesting character in his own right. I don't like my Heroes to have a distracting family, unless it is a funny one, and this one is not.
And I never really warm up to Sebastian himself, although his policeman friend Stephen Reed is more likeable. Our Hero carries the weight of his family's reduced circumstances heavily, but at the same time seems to involve himself in events unnecessarily - does he need to join the search for the missing girls when his remand for being in the area has nothing to do with that? Chase down the victims of the previous attack? Talk down the unhappy dad with the knife at the hospital where his wife works? There is a sense of superiority here - I used to be a Pinkerton detective, and I know a lot about crazy people so you should let me handle this - that is a little hard to take.
The strength of the book is its steady but complex plot development. The story moves along, with enough believable red herrings to keep you involved. I wouldn't call it a thriller, although there is a thrilling (in the dark way) sequence at the end. And, it is well-written, formal enough to evoke the period and carefully researched, even if the characters never really compel.
There IS an interesting, um, culinary note, which actually provides a key to solving one critical piece of the puzzle - did Sir Owain do it, or not? It involves sources of protein in the remotest parts of the Amazon basin!