Review: Dark Asylum

E.S. Thomson (Beloved Poison) unveils another gruesome chapter in the life of Jem Flockhart as she looks into a murder within the confines of a lunatic asylum. A female apothecary in Victorian London, she has lived her entire life disguised as a man. Jem has no love for Angel Meadow Asylum, a dark, hulking facility whose halls echo with the screams of its disturbed inmates. However, when abusive, phrenology-obsessed superintendent Dr. Rutherford is found dead with his ears removed and stuffed into his sewn-shut mouth, his own calipers sticking out of his head, Jem and her best friend and roommate, Will Quartermain, investigate.

Suspicion falls on beautiful, vivacious Susan Chance, a young woman who at the age of 10 killed the man her mother sold her to, and became the ward of another Angel Meadow doctor. Jem and Will remain unconvinced that Susan would kill again--Will troubled to think a woman would commit such a crime and Jem taking a compassionate view of the girl's original crime. As they unravel the truth, Jem and Will move through the filth and stench of London's Dickensian era, when women and children without protectors were destined for prostitution, or worse. The duo find that the staff of Angel Meadow have secrets as dark and dirty as the city itself, and Rutherford is not the only target. Amidst all this, a thread of scenes follows the tragic life a woman who grew up in London's slums and slowly illuminates her connection to the crimes.

Dark Asylum does for Victorian psychology (if such a word even applies to practices of the era) what Beloved Poison did for Victorian medicine, exposing the ignorant cruelty and indignities inflicted upon the mentally ill in a time when the idea of taking patients outside for leisure was revolutionary. To Thomson's credit, she does not cast the asylum's inmates as villains or cretins, but rather focuses on the inhumane conditions and barbarous treatments they suffer, including forced lobotomies and restraint, and punishment with devices now considered instruments of torture. Chills come from the oppressive, violent atmosphere, gruesome urban legends told by impoverished Londoners and visits to graveyards and other settings dank and grim. Jem is quick-witted and sympathetic to the plight of people deemed insane, as she is an outsider in danger of winding up in an asylum herself if the wrong person discovers her deception. Meanwhile, Will pines for the countryside as he faces the chaos of city life. Smart, spine-tingling and sprawling, this second outing shows Thomson has the staying power for a long and delightfully grotesque series. --Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

Shelf Talker: In the return of Jem Flockhart, a British apothecary and Victorian woman living as a man, murder at an insane asylum pulls the sleuth into the seedy heart of London.

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