Constable | 2017 | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1852 and St Saviour’s monastery in London is no more, its hospital relocated. But Jem Flockhart, the apothecary to the infirmary, has stayed behind thanks to roots too deeply embedded. Jem isn’t quite what he seems, and not only because of the large birthmark that obscures the top half of his face like a Venetian mask. Jem is a woman, brought up as a boy and then a young man by a father who turned mad. And now Jem works as apothecary in the place where her father died, the Angel Meadow Asylum across the road from what survives of the monastery and Jem’s beloved infirmary garden.
The head doctor of Angel Meadows, Dr Hawkins, has been away for some time, having left the care of the asylum in the hands of Dr Rutherford, a man with his own brutal theories about the ways in which to treat the souls in his care. Few mourn when, on Dr Hawkins’ return to the asylum, Dr Rutherford is found murdered in his rooms. But this is no typical murder – Rutherford’s head is bashed in, his ears cut off, his eyes and lips are sewn shut. There will be many suspects, not all of whom are locked in their rooms at night, and Dr Hawkins gives the case to Jem and his close friend Will Quartermain. Jem and Will have proven their detective skills already and both are indefatigable in their pursuit of truth and justice as they move through a society that is as black as night for its cruelty, madness and punishment.
Dark Asylum is the second novel to feature Jem and Will. It follows close on the heels of Beloved Poison, an outstanding historical crime debut from E.S. Thomson. Each book stands alone well but I certainly recommend that you read them both.
Dark Asylum takes us into a part of Victorian London at its very worst. The fact that some of its inhabitants are scientists and doctors makes its corruption and casual injustice seem even worse. The poor, especially the insane, have little value – their actual bones and brains matter more to most of the doctors than their living bodies and welfare. We meet some pitiful men and women within the walls of Angel Meadows. The moral corruption is matched by the stench of the place, its dirt and squalour. And its misery. There is light, though, and it comes from Jem and Will’s pursuit of justice, as well as the sincere efforts of one or two of the doctors to help their patients come through a disease that yields no physical symptoms to treat. There is entertainment, too, from one eccentric doctor in particular.
The medical detail is absolutely fascinating and I was engrossed by E.S. Thomson’s recreation of this dark asylum and the people in it, whether doctors, doctors’ wives, servants or patients. We travel outside the asylum, too, thanks to the journal extracts scattered throughout the novel which tell the sad and compelling story of a female slum-dweller and convict. The glimpse of life aboard a convict ship bound for the other side of the world is especially involving – and repellant.
Jem’s double life provides the heart of the novel and it’s affect on him/her is immense and colours almost everything that she does, as well as her relationships. E.S. Thomson writes Jem’s life with such feeling and it is wonderful to see Will’s behaviour towards his friend. I really care for Jem, even though there are things she does, moral judgements she makes, that are harder to understand.
It is because of Jem and the fabulous mood and atmosphere that E.S. Thomson builds that I have been waiting so impatiently for this follow-up to Beloved Poison. I was thrilled to receive it and it satisfied all my expectations. Long may the series continue!