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THE BEDLAM DETECTIVE
by Stephen Gallagher
Broadway, February 2013
320 pages
$15.99
ISBN: 0307406652


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Sebastian Becker once worked as a Pinkerton man in the United States, until circumstances suggested that he would be safer back in his native England. He has returned with his wife and his teen-age son, who suffers from what we might now call high-functioning Asperger's and found employment as a special investigator for the Masters in Lunacy. These officials are charged with determining if individuals are capable of managing their own affairs or are rendered incompetent by reason of insanity. (For the record, Masters in Lunacy actually exist.) The time is 1912 and as the novel opens, Becker is off to take a look at Sir Owain Lancaster, widely viewed as barking mad by the general public.

The cause for concern is a book that Sir Owain published following his return from a disastrous expedition to the jungles of Brazil. Owain was accompanied by his wife, his young son, a botanist cum medical assistant, and tons and tons of gear calculated to support a life of luxury even in the depths of the uncharted jungle. He even found space for his little son's rocking horse. Needless to say, the expedition foundered when it had barely begun and in the end, all perished save Sir Owain and the botanist. The cause of the deaths? The party was stalked by unidentified, unidentifiable monsters who systematically preyed on the party. Worse, the monsters have followed Lancaster home and now restlessly prowl around his decaying mansion where he is served by a resident doctor and his chauffeur/cook/general factotum. When two young girls are found raped and murdered on the Lancaster estate, Sir Owain knows what did it - the monsters, of course.

Becker is anxious to discover just how mad Owain is - mad enough to murder, perhaps to shore up his claims of monstrous beasts. On his visit to the Lancaster estate he meets a woman who was similarly attacked in the past, though not killed, and the local policeman, Stephen Reed, who is investigating the murders. Gallagher develops both these characters in interesting ways.

So there is a lot of Gothic furniture here - a mad industrialist, possibly supernatural monsters, a sinister physician - and the author works all of it with great verve. But what he also does and what marks this book out from the run-of-the-mine thriller is his rich evocation of the Victorian world-view in its final moments, a view that sent so many young men off to conquer the untamed world in the name of progress, the Queen, or Christianity. Gallagher provides a splendid sample of it in his chapter from Lancaster's book, The Empire of Beasts, in which Lancaster recounts how he behaved following an attack by the mysterious creatures, which seemed bent on harvesting members of the expedition as food. Lancaster is accompanied by a large number of Portugese-speaking porters, who are, of course, terrified. He proposes to go after the beasts with his buffalo gun, and to go alone. The others plead with him not to risk his life, but he grows "stern with them as if they were so many children," and reminds them who's running the show, after all. Off he goes, confronts the beasts and returns. To recount the details of the adventure would be to spoil it for readers, but it is, as you might anticipate, lively. At the heart of the whole narrative is the Great White Hunter, the civilized man who knows more and knows better than the natives of the country and who also is more courageous, more resolute, more fit to lead. That he is wrong on every count will come as no surprise. Gallagher's imitation of what is a quite substantial body of factual and semi-factual accounts of similar forays into the heart of the unknown is pitch-perfect and he even kindly includes snippets of that same literature as chapter headings along the way to prove the point.

Quite frankly, I was unprepared for this book. Stephen Gallagher has amassed a considerable bibliography and has won major prizes for his fantasy and horror novels, but, I admit, I had never come across him. THE BEDLAM DETECTIVE drew me in instantly and kept me up reading way past my bedtime. It also made me look for copies of other of his work, especially THE KINGDOM OF BONES, in which Sebastian Becker makes his first appearance. None, apparently, are readily available in the United States, a lack that I hope Broadway or some other enterprising publisher will soon repair.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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