Written by ES Thomson — Angel Meadow Asylum is a grim place even by the standards of 1851 London. Jem Flockhart is on the scene when a body is found. The murder is gruesome. There are fatal blows to the skull and the ears have been cut off. These are found stuffed in the mouth which has been crudely sewn together with six thick black stitches. The victim is Dr Rutherford, principal physician to the insane and an unpopular and arrogant doctor with an interest in phrenology. It is his own phrenological callipers that have been driven into his brain.
Jem Flockhart has an interesting backstory. She is a highly skilled apothecary with a detailed knowledge of the herbs and plants to treat illness. She was brought up a boy by her father after her twin died and her true identity is known to just a few. Her friend, Will Quartermain, is an architect who shares rooms with Jem and seems to accompany her everywhere.
The hunt to find the killer takes us across London. We frequent the seediest brothels, smell the squalor of London’s slums in the fictional ‘rookery’ of Prior’s Rents, and live through the spectacle of the public hanging. We even get an insight into the grim life of the transportation ships.
There is no doubt that the historical elements of this novel are a rich feast and are easily its greatest strength. The Victorian management of mental illness is laid out and the carefully exposed medical detail is eye-watering. There is primitive brain surgery and discussion amongst the physicians on the speculative techniques to manage mental illness and the ‘lunatics’. It is immersive.
At times the dialogue is less convincing and the phonetic representation of the London lower classes may make you wince. It is hard to get a dodgy Dick Van Dyke cor-blimey-guvnor accent out of your head when reading some of them. A little goes a long way with vernacular and it is a touch over-seasoned here. Some of the characters are richly outlined and who could not appreciate the wonderfully named madam Mrs Roseplucker and her Home for Young Ladies of an Energetic Disposition? Curiously, Will Quartermain is underdeveloped and is a rather one-dimensional sidekick.
And then there is the story. It’s not quite clear what is at stake for Jem Flockhart in this book. Find the murderer? Sure. Yet there seems little else. It’s not helped by the initial victim being such an unsympathetic character. Elsewhere the conflict is somewhat on the tepid side too. Flockhart has no shortage of internal angst and although she is an intriguing protagonist the story meanders along lacking some conviction.
There are points in the narrative where a little less colour and a dash more story would have been welcome. This might betray Thompson’s background as a medical historian and it is always a tricky balance with historical crime fiction. Dark Asylum might work a lot better for those who have already enjoyed Beloved Poison, Thomson’s first book with Jem Flockhart.
There is an enormous amount of meticulous research to savour here and fans of Thomson will sink into it with pleasure. The evocation of 1850s London is almost visceral. There are some fine set pieces. However, it feels like a thick Victorian smog has blanketed the story and smothered the other characters. As a work of historical fiction it is nothing short of lavish but if you are looking for page turner you may be disappointed.
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CFL Rating: 3 Stars