The Bedlam Detective by Stephen Gallagher

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The Bedlam Detective by Stephen Gallagher

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Stevens
Reviewed by Robin Stevens
Summary: The Bedlam Detective is a whip-smart and obviously loving homage to the work of writers like Wells and Conan Doyle that’s both well written and ridiculously enjoyable.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: May 2013
Publisher: Ebury Press
ISBN: 9780091950125

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Authors like to claim that writing is hard work. In a way, that’s true – there are a really astonishing number of words in a book, and it’s often very difficult to wrangle them from your head into coherent sentences on a page. At the same time, though, hard should not be the same as boring. It’s sad to come across authors who don’t enjoy the process of writing, and it’s so easy to tell when you’re reading a piece of work by a writer who was actually having fun when they wrote it.

I’m pretty sure Stephen Gallagher enjoyed every minute of The Bedlam Detective. A deliciously fast-paced romp through early twentieth century pop culture, The Bedlam Detective is a clever, respectful and obviously loving homage to the work of writers like Wells and Conan Doyle that’s both well written and ridiculously enjoyable. Always spot-on in its references and tone, it still manages to bring something fresh to the conventions of the old genre it’s playing in.

The Bedlam Detective is the sequel to last year’s The Kingdom of Bones, set about ten years after most of the events in that book. Sebastian Becker is a Pinkerton’s man no more. He and his family have moved from America to the slums of Southwark, where Sebastian works for the intriguingly-named Masters of Lunacy. English law dictates that a madman may not own property, and it is Sebastian’s and his colleagues’ task to determine who is mad and who is sane.

His latest case takes him to Cornwall, to the estate of Sir Owain Lancaster. Sir Owain is an amateur scientist who led an ill-fated and shadowy expedition to the Amazon many years ago, returning with fantastic tales of huge, malevolent beasts who attacked himself and his men. When London’s scientific establishment derided him on his return, he shut up like a clam, but he still privately maintains that what he saw in the forest was real – and that the monsters have followed him home.

If this is reminding you of a certain Professor Challenger, you’re right to make the connection. The Bedlam Detective owes a great deal to The Lost World, and at times follows its storyline closely – but with a clever ‘what-if’ spin that makes it a satisfying pastiche rather than just thoughtless borrowing. When Sebastian turns up in Cornwall to interview Sir Owain about his potential madness, he discovers that two little girls have gone missing – and they’re not the first to be taken. Local stories tell of a huge beast on the moors, but Sebastian wonders whether the ‘beast’ might really be a man. Is Sir Owain right to fear his Amazonian monsters – or is he the real monster?

Gallagher’s obviously a fan of both the texts he’s referencing and the time period he’s using as his setting. As a fellow Lost World aficionado and a lover of good old-fashioned adventure stories, the passages of the novel set in the Amazon delighted me, as a history buff I loved the rich use Gallagher makes of the most interesting pieces of period detail (the nascent film industry, the suffragette movement and especially those Visitors in Lunacy) and as a crime fan I found the central mystery well-paced, clever and appropriately mysterious. It’s always a good sign when reading a sequel feels like you are reacquainting yourself with old friends, and Sebastian is a hero who I genuinely enjoy spending time with. The plot builds up to a satisfying and appropriately cinematic climax (when he’s not writing novels, Gallagher writes for TV), and the ending leaves room for another possible Becker novel in the future.

Conan Doyle’s and Wells’s novels were dismissed at the time as ridiculous pulp fiction, but one hundred years later they’ve stood the test of time far better than most of their consciously literary contemporaries. It’s ironic that we’re still struggling to come to terms with ‘genre’ writing today – and, of course, that’s what The Bedlam Detective is too. But, as is only right, it’s unashamed of either its predecessors or itself. Gallagher shows that it’s possible to write well, no matter what you choose to write about, and also that it’s possible to have a huge amount of fun and tell a great story while you’re doing so. If you love Edwardian fiction, historical crime or intelligent thrillers, you’re in for a real treat here.

If you missed Sebastian Becker's first outing, meet him in The Kingdom of Bones.

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