Book Review: Dark Asylum, E.S. Thomson (2017)

This post reviews E.S. Thomson’s Dark Asylum (2017), the latest novel in the Jem Flockhart murder mystery series. For a review of its predecessor, Beloved Poison, click here.

Dark AsylumDark Asylum – the second novel in the Jem Flockhart series – hit bookstores earlier this month. I was privileged to be sent a copy by its publishers (Little, Brown) ahead of the release date and my belated review can only be blamed on a busy month marked by my third-year DPhil upgrade assessment and organising a symposium on the doctor-patient relationship (more on that later). Amidst the work-induced headaches, Dark Asylum provided some much-needed relief, a pleasurable (though rather dark) diversion.

The books are part of a series of neo-Victorian murder mysteries set amidst the labyrinth of 1850s London. The narrator, Jem Flockhart, is a part-time apothecary, part-time amateur detective, who also bears the distinction of being born a woman but living and working as a man. In the first novel, Jem pursues the murderer of a close friend and colleague by unravelling the intrigues of St Saviour’s, a crumbling hospital. The series is informed by Thomson’s background as a medical historian and her ongoing research in this area; the second book takes place within the claustrophobic confines of a lunatic asylum, the drolly named Angel Meadow.

When it comes to depicting lunacy, Thomson draws upon motifs and images that would have been familiar in the Victorian cultural imagination. The narrative oscillates between fear and pity for the afflicted, using them as a source of comedy and horror. As in the previous novel, Jem’s consciousness also shows flashes of twenty-first century sympathies. The story is given greater emotional weight because her father was a patient of the asylum and she fears the onset of hereditary madness within her own mind. Some of Angel Meadow’s inmates are individually characterised, including Edward Eden, the well-to-do heir to a drapery and funeral business, who is shut away due to idiocy, a term once used to denote learning disability. While the narrative could have explored patient experiences in more detail, it suggests that there’s a thin line between sanity and insanity, patients and practitioners. As the plot unravels, it appears that those confined within the walls of the asylum do not necessarily pose the greatest danger, while some characters find themselves incarcerated as their circumstances shift.

Thomson examines Victorian responses to insanity, charting treatments that run the gamut from invasive brain surgery to ‘hygienic’ moral management. She characterises this as a time of both ambition and experimentation in the mental sciences. Once again we’re treated to a host of medical men, whose behaviour ranges from the arrogant to the eccentric. The murder victim, Dr Rutherford, is an authoritarian and unsympathetic physician, with a dark past and preference for murky medical practices. Meanwhile, the free-thinking maverick Dr Golspie self-experiments with hashish in the hope that he might unveil the inner workings of the mind. The clash between the different medical personalities was – once again – brilliantly realised. As someone researching the professional identities of nineteenth-century practitioners, I was particularly delighted by the way in which the novel touched on the peripatetic and precarious nature of medical careers in this period. For instance, one character moves between employment as a ship’s surgeon, prison doctor, and asylum superintendent. Another is a truly self-made man, beginning in the rookeries before installing himself among the established profession.

The narrative draws on an impressive amount of historical research. For instance, Rutherford is portrayed as a keen collector of skulls and death-masks, both of which feed his obsessive passion for phrenology. As the plotline unfolds, it takes its reader from the gallows to the anatomist’s table to a convict ship in a series of unexpected twists. Thomson has researched everything from the medical uses of photography to the conditions of transportation, giving her novel vibrancy rather than verisimilitude perhaps. (Its plot is fiendishly far-fetched after all, in the vein of much detective fiction.)

Thomson has a real knack for drawing lively and memorable figures, such as the elaborately made-up Dr Stiven (suited and booted in the finest Regency attire) and his ward Susan Chance, a supposedly reformed child-murderer from the slums now turned out as a genteel lady. The characterisation also shows plenty of humour. Dr Mothersole is a particularly fantastic creation, a pompous and bombastic physician-cum-philanthropist. He’s a visiting doctor at Angel Meadow and a staunch advocate of ‘hygienic methods of care’, endorsing music and art among the largely uninterested inmates. In his wake trails a beleaguered daughter, Constance, who is expected to dutifully record her father’s wit and wisdom for his biography. There’s a particularly brilliant moment when Mothersole dissects his daughter’s physiological failings to Jem, noting that she’s ‘flat-chested, dull-complexioned’ and that her ‘menses are absent’. The scenes with Mothersole ease some of the narrative tension, providing welcome respite from the darker aspects of the novel, while serving to highlight the peripheral roles given to women.

As with Beloved Poison, the story is decidedly macabre. The novel opens with the discovery of Dr Rutherford’s mangled corpse. He’s found with his head bashed in, a pair of phrenological callipers piercing the skull. His ears are cut off and his eyes and lips sewn shut. The murder is an act both violent and symbolic, signifying vengeance and retribution. From the opening pages onward, the reader needs a strong stomach, for the descriptions are vivid and often horrific.

There’s some particularly troubling material here, with sexual violence featuring prominently in the plot. While the narrative draws strongly on melodramatic and Gothic fiction, these scenes are stark and convincing, the experiences recounted unflinchingly by a survivor. Many critics have rightly questioned the use of rape as a plot device in crime fiction. (To date, ITV’s Broadchurch seems to be aptly handling it in a modern-day context). However, in Dark Asylum it doesn’t feel as though it’s introduced as a lazy dramatic device or as something gratuitous. Instead it’s used to emphasise the systemic exploitation and brutality facing women (particularly those in poverty) in the Victorian city.

In the Jem Flockhart novels, London functions not merely as a backdrop but a character in itself. The narrative introduces us to ominous metropolitan institutions – including the asylum and House of Correction – horrific workplaces like Knight and Day’s blacking factory, Mrs Roseplucker’s garish brothel (or Home for Young Ladies of an Energetic Disposition), and the fictional rookeries, Prior’s Rents, where bare-knuckle boxing takes place in the streets and seamier goings-on behind closed doors. The setting pulsates with life and energy; it seems as though Thomson revels in describing the city’s underbelly, whilst also sympathetically drawing out its depredations. Dark Asylum revisits many of the scenes and characters of Beloved Poison. Those who have read the earlier novel will enjoy these familiar faces and moments of recognition; while they’re not integral to the plot, they give it extra piquancy.

Jem’s gender fluidity seemed more marked in this book in contrast with its prequel. In Beloved Poison, I got the impression that Jem resented the fact her father forced her to live as a man, that she considered it a disguise and identified more strongly as a woman. When I penned the first review, I was concerned with getting Jem’s pronouns right and went for the precedent set by the  book’s blurb and interviews with the author: ‘she’. Here, Jem’s self-identification seems less clear. At one point, the narrator comments, ‘I am neither man, nor woman’. In the opening pages, Jem seems to be depicted in terms of traditionally male qualities (rationality, fortitude), while her male companion Will Quartermain is defined by more stereotypically feminine traits. As with the earlier novel, the interrogation of gender identity bubbles below the surface – an undercurrent to the detective plot – but it also speaks to the story’s major theme: the marginalised position of women. Like its predecessor, Dark Asylum explores Jem’s sexuality and sexual awakening, but its treatment here is more peremptory compared with the previous novel, where the object of Jem’s affections plays an important part in the story. Still, her choice of partner here serves as a refreshing character.

This novel uses a dual or split narrative – alongside Jem’s runs that of an (initially) unidentified woman, who (a year after the murder) recounts her shocking life story from within the asylum. The reader is invited to guess which female character is penning the tale and whether she’s the killer. It is a great structural device, for the second narrative functions not just as a confessional but as a compelling story in its own right. In fact, I found this narrative voice stronger and more confident than that of the protagonist. Perhaps this is because its linear quality and purposeful tone gives it a sense of direction, or it might be because Jem’s slippery, self-effacing character tends to undermine her sense of conviction. Yet the narrative also sounded more convincingly or persuasively (neo-)Victorian, whereas Jem’s can come across as incongruous. I found myself flicking through the pages, eager to see when the anonymous narrator would next intrude. The structure provided a sense of momentum, sustaining my interest until the end. Our growing sympathy for the second narrator – who seems to be wrapped up in the murders – also gives the story some welcome moral complexity, but risks detracting from our investment in Jem’s investigation.

In describing Jem’s detective prowess, Thomson peppers the story with several nods to Sherlock Holmes. At one point, Jem demonstrates lightning-fast powers of deduction, extrapolating from minute material details and impressing the befuddled Will with her eagle-eyed observations. (Will – as the trusty sidekick – seems a little spare at times but keeps Jem grounded and humanised.) Jem also exhibits an appetite for ‘the game’. I felt these allusions were unnecessary or miscalculated. Jem’s strength as an amateur detective seems to lie not so much in her ratiocination but rather in her position as the overlooked observer, her knowledge of what it is like to practise concealment and disguise.

If anything, Dark Asylum seems less indebted to Arthur Conan Doyle and more influenced by later detective fiction. The murder takes place following an evening ‘soirée’ in the asylum, in which inmates, colleagues, and friends gather to celebrate the return of its principal physician, Dr Hawkins, and his new wife. The event is a nod to the functions that took place in real-life Victorian lunatic asylums but also seems almost a pastiche of the country-house parties that open many a Golden Age murder mystery. The novel also delivers its readers a designated line-up of suspects – many of whom are not only concealing their identities but their connections with each other. Disguise is an important theme in the novel, and few of the colourful characters are exactly who they seem. The reader can barely begin to anticipate the ways in which their histories interlock, a device which seems to owe as much to the coincidences of Victorian fiction as to the improbable twists of modern-day detective dramas. One disappointment was that, though the narrative runs to over 350 pages, some of the best characters remain a little underused, receding as the tale unravels. Finally, the way Jem frequently oversteps her authority (examining crime scenes and taking evidence with impunity) also seems like a parodic gesture towards maverick detectives of the small screen.

Beloved Poison felt almost like an inadvertent murder mystery, a novel which principally turned on its murky setting (the crumbling hospital) and a dark history inspired by tales of body-snatching. In contrast, Dark Asylum seems like an homage to the detective genre as well as a neo-Victorian tale, though both books showcase the author’s passion for medical history. At the end of Dark Asylum there’s an Author Q&A where Thomson teases the reader with the promise of a third outing for Jem and Will, in the London docks aboard a floating seaman’s hospital. It’s an inventive setting for a writer who clearly enjoys delving into little-known aspects of the Victorian medical world.

Dark Asylum is available to buy here

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