The Bedlam Detective
It’s not often I read a book in one sitting; with this novel, I didn’t leave my chair for so much as a bathroom break.
In Edwardian England, Sebastian Becker works as special investigator for the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor in Lunacy. This unique branch of British bureaucracy deals with individuals of wealth and means suspected of being too insane to properly administer either.
Sir Owain Lancaster may be such a man. His expedition to the Amazon saw the loss of all souls; only Lancaster and one other staggered out of the jungle alive. Lancaster demolishes a lifetime of achievement with the publication of his fantastical account, presented before the Royal Society, blaming the tragedy on attack by mythical beasts. Soon after, two girls are murdered on Lancaster’s estate, with Lancaster claiming they also were “torn by beasts.” Becker must decide not only if Lancaster is insane, but if he’s a murderer.
I’m not sure I can do this book justice — it’s certainly a thriller, but with a literary depth unusual in the genre, and fascinating in the complexity of its construct. Gallagher’s prose is swift, sure, and occasionally darkly comedic. Excerpts from Lancaster’s fantastical account are interspersed with historical Amazonian reports, adding to the mystery a compelling tale of jungle survival and all the fantastical steampunk appeal of a Jules Verne or Rider Haggard story. As Becker’s son (autistically brilliant before one could be categorized as such) tells Becker upon analyzing Lancaster’s book: “It’s not a matter of where truth ends and fantasy begins…you should have said where fact ends and fantasy begins.” For truth, like madness, is a matter of perception, and as Lancaster himself points out, “The human mind is an amazing instrument of perception…how far should we trust the instrument’s perception of itself?”
Three words of advice: read this book.