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by Stephen Gallagher
Ebury, May 2013
365 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 0091950120

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Madness, murder, manners and militant feminists all meet in the febrile atmosphere of the days before the First World War. Hardly the setting for your average crime thriller, but this is hardly your average anything. Stephen Gallagher's work has long attracted rave reviews from the critics and this dark, carefully constructed and beautifully written story makes it easy to see why. This is not a book for the reader who likes their action hot and heavy, but is a fine piece of literature with a clever and compelling plot set in a well-depicted post-Victorian England.

Former Pinkerton detective Sebastian Becker is back in his own country as The Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy at London's Bethlem Hospital his job to tell the Master of Lunacy whether his wealthy patients are mad or monsters. And if that sounds preposterous, it's true. The job did exist and its purpose was to decide whether people were sane enough to administer their own property.

Landowner Sir Owain Lancaster's sanity has been in debate since a disastrous Amazonian expedition killed his family and colleagues. Lancaster insists they were destroyed by monsters who have followed him to his west country estate where he lives in reduced circumstances with his doctor and one servant. Sebastian must decide if he is sane enough to continue his strange existence or should be committed. But when two young girls are murdered not the first time children been harmed in the neighbouring village he must discover if Lancaster is really a crazed killer, or whether something more sinister is at work.

The careful unfolding of the strange events which took place on the ill-fated trip through the jungle is well crafted and doled out in small portions to maintain the suspense. While Becker is no crack detective and definitely short on procedural policing, he is human and fallible enough as he struggles with the mystery and his home life, particularly the episodes with his autistic son, to keep our sympathy. The other major players a local detective sergeant, a young and determined suffragette and Lancaster himself are equally well drawn and this clever cross between historical fiction and mystery is an engrossing read.

John Cleal is a former soldier and journalist with an interest in medieval history. He divides his time between France and England.

Reviewed by John Cleal, June 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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