There is something about the phrase “Master of Lunacy” that just makes you want to read the book.
In Stephen Gallagher’s The Bedlam Detective it is 1912 in Edwardian England and the privileged are still entities unto themselves, managing lush estates and commanding the service of those around them.
Sebastian Becker is an investigating agent of one of the Lord Chancellor’s Visitors in Lunacy, a function of the Lunacy Act of 1845. Becker’s job: to evaluate the landed gentry for madness and determine the need for institutionalization.
The book opens with Becker on a train to the seaside village of Arnmouth and the subject of his latest investigation, Sir Owain Lancaster. Sir Owain’s sanity has been in question since he returned from an expedition to an uncharted area of the Amazon. The journey claimed the life of every participant, including Sir Owain’s wife and only son.
As the only surviving member, Sir Owain returns to England intent to give a description of the mishaps. Through a spectacular talk at the Royal Society which ends in a riot and the publication of a fantastical book of the journey, Sir Owain has been ostracized out of society and relegated to his country estate to live out his days on a dwindling income and with questionable judgment.
When Becker arrives, it is to find that two girls have disappeared from their vacation home. When the girls turn up on Sir Owain’s estate – dead, disfigured, and violated – Becker immediately begins to suspect that Sir Owain may indeed need to come under the care of the Master of Lunacy.
The story swirls back and forth between Becker’s life in London—where his wife and undiagnosed, but high-functioning autistic, son live—and the mystery afoot in Arnmouth.
As he proceeds, he encounters other mysteries of girls disappearing, including one where two survivors lived, but they have never fully told their tale. As we try to unravel Sir Owain’s involvement in the middle of this crime, we witness Becker constantly engaging the fringes of his society—the dispossessed, the insane, the desperate—as he tries to track down Sir Owain’s original Amazonian trip and assess the dire consequences that the horrific journey had.
While Gallagher is by no means a new author, this was my first experience with this author, whom The Independent has called “the finest British writer of bestselling popular fiction since le Carré.”
Normally as summer winds down into fall, I am casting about trying to find something engaging to read. I can’t wait to start working my way back through Gallagher’s canon and his action-driven, character-rich stories. If you haven’t tried him yet, The Bedlam Detective is a great place to start.
About the Author
Melissa Carle is a Support Specialist with the KC-LSP and thinks life is too short to read a book that doesn't excite you in the first 40 pages. She likes cooking, herb gardening, and, of course, reading and thinks all good books, fiction and non-fiction alike, share one thing in common: they're just a good yarn.