Stephen Gallagher’s new book, The Bedlam Detective, proved a surprisingly delightful read. It’s a historical novel characterized as a “literary thriller” set in 1912 rural England. Sebastian Becker, American and former Pinkerton Detective, has moved to England with his family and now investigates wealthy eccentrics to discern if they are still fit to manage their own affairs. Becker is asked to investigate a wealthy land owner in the southwest of London, Sir Owain, but upon his arrival Becker discovers two young girls have been brutally murdered. Becker quickly learns this is not the first time a pair of girls has been attacked in the area. Sir Owain’s questionable sanity (he describes monsters that may or may not imaginary), and his provocative account of a trip to the Amazon that killed his family and crew, prompt Becker to suspect his involvement in the murders.
In order to learn more about the murders, Becker must find the now grown women who were victims of that first violent childhood attack. One has remained in the small community barely sustaining herself as a caregiver for abused horses; the other is a young career woman and suffragette working in London. The two have divergent memories of their attack, yet together their stories can reveal the identity of the real monster in their community.
This novel was not what I expected, but I thoroughly enjoyed it! Thanks to Crown Publishers I received an ARC and dove in. I remain a sucker for this time period in England and the dark male detective. That got me into the book, but Gallagher’s writing kept me there. I was really intrigued by the idea that there might actually have been investigators checking on the sanity of the wealthy to ensure their competence. The investigative and psychological possibilities drew me in quickly– especially with the murder of two young children.
The surprise was the length to which we learn about Sir Owain’s disastrous trip to the Amazon through excerpts from his own writing and Becker’s interviews with the sole survivor of the expedition. Gallagher has developed a complex character in Sir Owain–his demons may or may not be real, yet they come to haunt everyone with whom he comes in contact. The novel deals with issues of England’s drive to explore and conquer the world, its changing class system, family struggles, the line between sanity and insanity, grief, poverty, the early woman’s movement, and even special education. Each a fascinating topic well woven into the fabric of the novel.
My one issue with the book is a wish for a better and fuller exploration of the female characters. Grace was an especially one-dimensional figure as the “wild child” victim grown up damaged and angry. The contrast to the more privileged, intelligent, (and amnesic) Evangeline was stark. Gallagher posits them as foils– almost a madonna / whore pairing that could have been far more nuanced and still effective. Becker’s wife, Elizabeth, was similarly afflicted as an “angel to the poor,” suffering her own economic difficulties, yet literally fighting for those in the welfare hospital in which she works. My feminist sensibilities bristle at these portrayals but I admit they didn’t both me until after I finished the book!
Overall, a unique and compelling adventure/mystery/thriller that will be enjoyed by fans of historical fiction.