Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Bedlam Detective

By Stephen Gallagher
Random House, 306 pgs
Submitted by Random House
Rating: 2.75

Britain, 1912, anxiety and paranoia are running high in the build-up to World War I. Arnmouth is a small coastal town where children have a tendency to periodically turn up missing and/or dead. Our hero is Sebastian Becker, Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy. Yep, that's right, Visitor in Lunacy, which makes it sound as if Becker himself is the loon, he just doesn't stay long. Instead he is a representative of Sir James Crichton-Browne, who is a historical figure and was, indeed, the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy. I am a fairly well-informed individual and had never heard of such a thing so I looked it up. This was a real thing in Victorian England and persisted into the twentieth century. You can learn all about it here.

When questioned on his position, Becker explains himself thus:
When the sanity of a man of property is questioned. . . it's the Visitor's duty to determine whether such a man is competent to manage his own affairs. Sometimes the mad can be devious in concealing their madness. I investigate those cases.
Becker's case in this instance involves one Sir Owain Lancaster (no relation), local eccentric rich guy, who trekked off into the Amazon several years previous, only to return with approximately 2% of his original party. His wife and son also died during this journey and Sir Owain claimed that monsters killed everybody and, what's more, followed him home to the English moors. As Becker is arriving in Arnmouth, he learns that two girls have gone missing. Their bodies are found soon after and Becker begins to investigate Sir Owain with the idea that he might be nuts and continuing the murderous rampage begun in South America.

It's turning into the spring of historical thriller fiction here at TexasBookLover, and billhooks seem en vogue as murder weapons. Unfortunately, Bedlam doesn't quite measure up. I'm trying to be fair but I fear Bedlam suffers in comparison to the previous two books reviewed here. I will admit to bumping up my original rating by .25 because I am genuinely conflicted. This book has some excellent and original elements: the Master and Visiting Loon thing; the psychedelic insects/expand your consciousness/acid-style bad trip thing; the intricacies of the fledgling still- and moving-camera technology; a complex back-story and fully-dimensional characters. There is a great imagination at work here.

It's the execution, the technical elements, that is lacking. The plot lags in several places; the varied elements of the story don't coalesce; and I'm still scratching my head over why a couple of plot elements are there at all. I won't go into which ones, should you choose to read Bedlam. SPOILER ALERT (depending on whether or not you've been paying attention): The identity of the bad guy, or one of the bad guys, is unexpected but only because he has held no prominent place in the story up to that point, in fact cannot even be called a character as far as the narrative is concerned; his history, motivations and psychology are never explored or explained at all. In the end, I just found this book frustrating.

There were some charming passages, such as this exchange between Becker and his son Robert:
It's not a matter of where truth ends and fantasy begins, Robert said. You should have said where fact ends and fantasy begins. If that's what you wanted to know.
Isn't it the same thing?
No, it's not. Mother's like a spring flower. That's not strictly a fact. But it is true. 
One more:
But are you telling me it's possible?
My heart says no. But I'm a scientist. I have to start by accepting that everything is possible, and then be guided to a proper conclusion by the evidence. Evidence-based thinking, Mister Becker. The greatest single achievement of the human animal. Without it we'd be praising God while shivering in our caves and dead by the age of thirty.
And there's wit:
I can tell you there's no dignity at the end of a rope. . . .
This was something that Hewlett did not like to hear. It seemed to dismay him more than the prospect of death itself. Death was an experience for which his imagination had no precedent; whereas humiliation had a reality for him, being something he probably experienced daily.
One more:
You could have killed me, Sebastian managed to say.
I could. And yet I feel no conscience about it. Is that significant, do you think? 
Stephen Gallagher
 And there's a very satisfying episode on page 293 involving a suffragette pin that is put to excellent use, so that the pin fulfills its meaning both literally and figuratively.

As I mentioned above, I am conflicted. There is so much to appreciate in the novel, and yet so much is disappointing. The author has written fourteen novels, and is also a screenwriter (he has written for the BBC's Dr. Who) and director. He is the winner of a British Fantasy Award and International Horror Guild Award. Because of this I am willing to choose another book of his and give it a try. It's possible that Bedlam was a one-off; that his other works are better. I'll let you know what I find.

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