Watching the Detectives

The Bedlam Detective: A Novel by Stephen Gallagher (Crown, $25.00, 305 pages)

“When a man who demands his own way in all things is faced with the disastrous consequences of his actions, he has to know what brought them on.   But can a man’s mind bear up under such knowledge?”

Prolific author Stephen Gallagher has carefully crafted a period piece set in 1912-era London.   The refined language and specificity of details draw the reader into the tale.   At first it seems a bit forced; however, as the drama/mystery unfolds, the reader becomes familiar with the main character, Mr. Simon Becker, a Brit who is a former Pinkerton Detective in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.   Becker is now in England with his wife Elizabeth, son Robert and sister-in-law Frances living under reduced circumstances.   Their relocation was precipitated by a need of proper guidance and schooling for son Robert, who has been variously described as mentally deficient and/or brilliant.

Although poor, the family is comfortably settled in a set of rooms in the Southwest borough of London.   Nearby are dreadful slums, yet Becker and the rest of the family count themselves fortunate to have created a home that suits their needs.   Elizabeth works as a nurse’s aide at a local hospital, Becker is employed by the Master of Lunacy in a poorly paying position, Robert attends classes at a special school, and Frances manages the household.

In his capacity as the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor in Lunacy, Becker travels to interview wealthy persons who may have become too addled or just plain insane to manage their own finances.   Becker is on such a visit to wealthy and titled industrialist, Sir Owain Lancaster, when all hell breaks loose in the small town near the industrialist’s large estate.   Two little girls are found dead with evidence of mauling and “interference.”   In the terminology of the era, this means they were sexually assaulted.   This is but one of a series of gory happenings in the town going back many years.   Becker gives in to his urge to investigate, a holdover from his Pinkerton days.

Sir Owain is a brilliant inventor whose life took a horrible turn for the worse during an expedition into the Amazon region of South America.   Gallagher does a brilliant job of unfolding his character’s quirks and motivations.   Becker and Sir Owain enter into a battle of wits as Becker tries to determine whether Sir Owain is a candidate for placement in protective custody by the Master of Lunacy – Becker’s employer.

What sets the book apart from other similar English period pieces is the wildly creative imagination of author Stephen Gallagher.   After setting the stage for the mystery, Gallagher forges ahead with his tale and as Bette Davis famously stated in All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”   Yes, it was a page-turner that kept my attention to the very end.

It makes perfect sense that Gallagher is able to bring a story to life so vividly as he is a screenwriter, director and novelist!

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Bedlam Detective was released on February 7, 2012.

“If thriller reading were a sin, Stephen Gallagher would by responsible for my eternal damnation.”   Dean R. Koontz

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