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ES Thomson

DARK ASYLUM … Between the covers

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E S Thomson delivers a tale of Gothick horror, which features a young medical apothecary trying to find who killed the senior physician at a gloomy and grotesque hospital for the mentally ill in Victorian London. Jem Flockhart is not what he seems, however. Mr Flockhart is actually a Miss, as he was born female, a surviving twin. For reasons that are not immediately clear, her father switched her with the stillborn brother at birth – a birth which was so traumatic that it killed the mother. Now an adult, helped by her lack of obvious feminine sexual characteristics, she has carved out for herself a persona as a respected medical gentleman and herbalist, a position which, given the prevailing nineteenth century attitude towards women in the medical profession, would have otherwise been unattainable.

Jem, and her companion Will Quartermain – who is unequivocally male – are summoned to view the body of Doctor Rutherford who is found with his ears cut off and stuffed in his mouth, a surgical implement jammed fatally into his brain, and his lips and eyes sewn shut with crudely executed surgical stitches. Amid the carnage, there is no shortage of suspects. The other doctors attached to the asylum are jealous of Rutherford’s eminence, but scathing about his obsession that phrenology – the study of the contours of the skull – is the only true means of understanding mental illness.

DAAs I got further into the book, I was beginning to wonder just what the point was of having Jem Flockhart cross-dressing, as it didn’t seem to have any real bearing on events. Just at the point when I was about to dismiss the idea as a conceit, Thomson delivered a beautifully written scene which made sense of Flockhart’s subterfuge, and added extra poignancy to the relationship between Jem and Will.

We learn that Jem has a disfiguring strawberry birthmark on her face, and Thomson writes with conviction on this issue, as her postscript to the story tells of how she suffered a temporary disfigurement herself, and how she came to be acutely aware of how people looked at her. I can say that this was a gripping read which drew me in to the extent that I finished the book in just a few sessions. The smells, sensations, sounds and social sensitivities of 1850s London are dramatically recreated, and provide much of the novel’s punch. Thomson has an eye for visceral horror and disease that David Cronenberg would approve of, and every time Jem Flockhart takes us into the room of one of the poorer denizens of London, we are inclined to hold our noses and be very careful where we put our feet.

Subtle, the book is not, but it is a dazzling, whirling, swirling riotous melodrama, which leaves little to the imagination. We have, in no particular order, people buried alive, heads being boiled in cauldrons, the shrieking, gibbering and cackling of the insane, a lunatic who keeps cockroaches as pets, the stench and degradation of prison transport ships, club-footed mad-women and the ghastly nineteenth century version of Britain’s Got Talent – the public execution.

Thomson also brings us some larger-than-life characters, none larger than the monstrous Dr Mothersole:

“His face was as smooth as a pebble, his mouth a crimson rosebud between porcelain cheeks. His head had not a single hair upon it and his lashes and brows were entirely absent, giving him a curious appearance, doll-like, and yet half complete….”

Also, very much to her credit, Thomson occasionally has her tongue firmly in her cheek. Why else would the dreadful and bestial Bedlam where most of the action takes place be called Angel Meadow, and what better name for a brothel keeper than Mrs Roseplucker? And what else are we to make of two of the charities patronised by Dr Mothersole, The Truss Society for the Relief of the Ruptured Poor, and The Limbless Costermongers Benevolent Fund ? I loved every page of this book. It is hugely entertaining and, unless something extraordinary happens, will be in the running for one of my books of the year. It is out now, and published by Constable.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Dark Asylum

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This new book reminds me that gender choice is very much a hot topic these days on and off social media, but in ‘the good old days’ people weren’t blessed with Facebook’s bewildering 71 gender options, which seem to have expanded rather after the fashion of satellite TV channels, minus the remote control, obviously. Gender flipping was usually confined to the lyrics of folk songs where young women pretended to be either cabin boys or army drummers so that they could stay close to their chosen young man as he sailed – or marched – off to do battle with Johnny Foreigner.

da-coverThe main character of ES Thomson’s Dark Asylum – the second in a series of Victorian crime novels – is Jem Flockhart. Jem is not who he seems to be. In fact, he isn’t ‘he’ at all. Jem is actually a young lady who is forced to transform herself into a man in order to be accepted in the medical profession. She first made an appearance in Beloved Poison (2016) and now she returns to investigate the murder of the principal physician at an insane asylum. Among all the usual tropes of Victorian London, including grim slum ‘rookeries’, brothels, violent convicts and brothels that cater for every depravity, Jem and her partner in solving crime, Will Quartermain search for the person who killed Dr Rutherford – after cutting off his ears and sewing his eyes and lips tight shut.

As I hope you can see from the images, Dark Asylum is handsomely printed, and if the novel is as gripping as it is well presented and designed, then it should be an excellent read. Look out for an in depth review on Fully Booked in the near future. Published by Constable/Little, Brown, it is out on 2nd March.

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