Book review: Dark Asylum by E. S. Thomson

Dark Asylum by E. S. Thomson
Dark Asylum by E. S. Thomson
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The dark arts seem to come naturally to Elaine Thomson… and that’s not just because she was born in Ormskirk, a Lancashire town reputed to have Viking origins.

By night a historical crime fiction author and by day a university lecturer in Edinburgh, Thomson has a PhD in the history of medicine and reveals that her subject matter ‘seemed far too exciting and peculiar to leave to the history books.’

And so it was that she set about writing her Jem Flockhart novels, brilliantly dark and atmospheric murder mysteries set in London in the 1850s when medicine was still brutally rudimentary, and treatments could be worse than death.

The series, which began with the highly acclaimed Beloved Poison last year, stars Jem Flockhart, a young woman who has lived all her life as a man and works as an apothecary in some of the city’s most sordid and notorious quarters.

Dark Asylum is the second book in this engaging series and comes with the same chilling, thrilling brand of grisly reality, fascinating medical detail and breathtaking insight… but all leavened by the darkest of humour.

As we meet up again with Jem, who was given the identity of her dead twin brother by her troubled father, we find her at work in the crumbling Angel Meadow Asylum, a place where a diverse range of doctors – some good, some bad – use early science to study mental illness and perform terrifying experimental treatments and operations.

When the abrasive Dr Rutherford, principal physician to the insane, is found horribly murdered, his head bashed in with his own phrenology callipers, his ears cut off, his lips and eyes stitched closed, the police immediately direct their attention towards Angel Meadow’s inmates.

But to the rational and logical Jem, and Will Quartermain, a young architect who is the apothecary’s friend and fellow detective, the vicious and carefully planned crime is an act of calculated retribution rather than of madness.

To discover the truth, Jem and Will must journey through the darkest corners of the city, from the depths of Priors Rents, a notorious rookery full of noise, squalor, crime and sorrow, to the sordid rooms of London’s brothels, the gallows, the graveyard, the convict fleet and then back to the asylum.

In a world where guilt and innocence, crime and atonement, madness and reason are bounded by hypocrisy, ambition and betrayal, Jem and Will soon find themselves caught up in a web of dark secrets.

And all the while, Jem must battle her own demons, not least the fear that she will inherit her father’s final illness, a condition that makes sleep impossible and sends the sufferer into the abyss of madness…

There is an almost Dickensian feel to Thomson’s Flockhart novels… moments of Victorian melodrama and dark humour are played out by a cast of eccentric characters, including Mrs Lunge, the asylum’s ‘very devil’ of a matron, and the marvellously named Mrs Roseplucker, madam of a back street brothel called Home for Young Ladies of an Energetic Disposition.

And Thomson’s writing has a bewitching beauty, creating a compelling contrast to the gruesome realities of 19th century medicine and the stench, filth and degradations of life and death in London’s most wretched corners.

Jem is a fascinating leading lady, her true sex concealed under men’s clothing, and her face permanently veiled by a port-wine birthmark that covers her eyes and nose ‘like a Venetian courtesan’s mask.’

There is hope here too for the afflicted in the shape of Jem and Will, relentlessly pursuing justice amidst the despair and misery, and determined to shine a light on the morally corrupt and those willing to take advantage of the sick and the poverty-stricken.

Intelligent, exciting, extensively researched and driven by the hidden gender of the intriguing Jem, this is a remarkably inventive and entertaining series with the legs to run and run.

(Constable, hardback, £19.99)