Written by BA Morton — BA Morton’s second novel published by Caffeine Nights is a crime and horror hybrid focusing on a battered detective, reeling from the disappearance of his wife 12 months ago, and his relationship with a young woman he saves after a violent crime.
The story takes place in the fictional setting of Bedlam, which I took to be in South London, named after the infamous asylum of Victorian times. The association is, I think, deliberate on the author’s behalf as there is certainly a theme of mental illness running through the novel.
There was once a time, not so long ago, when Detective Joe McNeil was a rising star in the Metropolitan Police. His love, Kit disappeared a year back in mysterious circumstances and his colleagues on the force have all but closed the case believing her dead. When we first meet McNeil he is hung over and hurting from a fight in his local pub, and his badgering of colleagues and unreliable behaviour have alienated the brass. Only his good record and support of his friend DI Dennis Todd are keeping him from the sack, and Todd’s patience is wearing thin.
When three bodies are found at one crime scene, Todd sees a last chance for his friend. Two homeless men have been hung from a viaduct, and a young woman lies dead on the ground. The press are swarming and the super wants the case solved yesterday.
When McNeil goes to examine the woman, previously recorded as dead by the forensics officer, he finds that she’s alive. The police should be ecstatic about a potential lead in the case, but such is the bad aura surrounding McNeil that she is viewed with suspicion, even horror. Their fears seem to be confirmed when she refuses to speak to anyone other than him. When McNeil interviews her in hospital he is frustrated by her cat-and-mouse answers to her questions. She allows that her first name is Nell but refuses to say any more about her identity. She won’t say anything about the circumstances of the crime other than that somebody called Jacob is her tormentor. Again, she cannot or will not identify him any further.
McNeil visits a second time in the hope of getting more information. Jacob, he is told, is not done with Nell, and since McNeil is her saviour, will now be after him also. McNeil leaves with only two clues, a distinctive tattoo of a two-headed serpent on Nell’s wrist and the fact that she refers to him as JoJo, something only Kit ever did. McNeil is convinced that this can’t be coincidence and believes more than ever that Kit must be alive.
Morton goes about creating a fine gothic atmosphere and Nell, and to an extent McNeil, are unreliable narrators. It is not clear until the end if the horror in Bedlam is supernatural or psychological in nature, testament to her fine writing. Her portrayal of McNeil in torment is very convincing, a lost soul without a map to guide him.
However, not everything is so well done. Short chapters of the story are written with Nell as first person narrator, and while the author may have wanted to keep some mystery, Nell’s thoughts are so obscure as to become frustrating. Almost nothing is explained here, and these sections become a chore to read.
Fortunately they don’t detract too much from the enjoyment the rest of Bedlam delivers, and if you are on the look out for some crime fiction that is not afraid to be a little different, then a stay in bedlam might be just what the doctor ordered.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars