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Onyx reviews: The Queen of Bedlam by Robert McCammon

The Queen of Bedlam is a crime novel set in New York City. However, this is no CSI: NY knock-off. The science of detection is in its infancy and the future Big Apple is a frontier town of barely 5000 people. So young, in fact, that few people are native New Yorkers—most residents were born in England. Much of Manhattan is pasture, orchards and farmland, with Wall Street as the demarcation line between the original Dutch colony to the south and the thriving English northern side.

However, astute businessmen and politicians recognize that New York is on the verge of becoming a city to rival Philadelphia on one side of the Atlantic and London on the other. Financiers aren't the only ones who see the promise—the criminal element does, too. The constabulary is poorly motivated, unpaid, and untrained to cope with a crime wave—four murders in a two-week period, two of which may be the work of the same man.

The year is 1702, three years after Matthew Corbett interceded in the case of a woman accused of being a witch in Fount Royal in the Carolina Colony, as related in Speaks the Nightbird. The former scrivener-apprentice is now personal secretary to Magistrate Nathaniel Powers, earning a paltry wage maintaining his boss's calendar and transcribing legal documents. In his spare time, he sets type for Marmaduke Grigsby, editor of an early progenitor of the New York Daily News.

Though Matthew has aspirations of attending law school, time is slipping by, and his chances of finding someone willing to sponsor him to a university in England are slim. Raised in an orphanage, he lacks the pedigree crucial to gaining admission. As the book opens, he learns that Powers is planning to leave New York, which means Matthew must figure out his future sooner rather than later.

A new opportunity presents itself when the New World's first serial killer stalks the muddy, dimly lit streets of New York. In the first issue of his broadsheet, Grigsby dubs the murderer The Masker, to the chagrin of High Constable Gardner Lillehorne. The citizens of the town are in a panic, and there are calls to shut the public houses down after dark to keep people off the streets.

Matthew is deeply curious and determined to see justice done. He doesn't believe the murders of prominent residents are random. He's also carrying a heavy load of guilt because his determination to force Eben Ausley, evil headmaster of the orphanage where Matthew grew up, to answer for his crimes caused another man to commit suicide. Matthew has been shadowing Ausley in a vain attempt to find incriminating evidence against his nemesis.

His innate detection skills come in handy when he is offered a job with the Herrald Agency, private investigators setting up their first branch office in the New World. Matthew comports himself admirably during his initial assignment—a test of his mettle and ingenuity—and is made a junior associate.

Once Matthew joins the Herrald Agency, the book turns into a Holmesian mystery. McCammon even supplies his detective with a magnifying glass, effectively turning Holmes' trademark detection tool into a cliché in retrospect. There's even a master villain, a foil to Matthew and his employers and a predecessor to Professor Moriarity. Matthew's unseen nemesis is also a professor, named Fell, a man so dangerous that the mere mention of his name makes grown men tremble. Fell's minions are training a posse of young criminals to put the Artful Dodger and his cohorts to shame.

The eponymous Queen doesn't enter the tale until nearly halfway through, and she's a tertiary character at best. More of a catalyst than a major player. The elderly woman is cloistered in a remote mental institution, with all identifying marks removed from her belongings. Matthew is sure that finding out who she is will go a long way toward identifying The Masker, and he convinces his new employers to let him pursue this lead.

McCammon skillfully recreates early 18th century colonial America—the length of time it takes to travel even short distances out of town, the condition of the rough and mostly unpaved streets, the pervasive darkness of the lanes and alleys, the pretensions and airs of the upper class, the way business is transacted. As in Speaks the Nightbird, he paints a picture of a vastly different time without letting research overwhelm his storytelling. For maximum effect, he builds his world in the same way science fiction writers create alien locales.

He also spends a great deal of time describing in detail new characters the first time they appear, an approach many writers eschew, but very much in keeping with the rest of the book. It's refreshing to hear the author's vision of how these characters look.

No ordinary characters these, either. McCammon populates the New World with unique, colorful and memorable people, including Grigsby's granddaughter Berry, a veritable Calamity Jane (she barely makes it to the New World because her clumsiness almost sinks the ship she booked passage on); a coroner who doesn't have a stomach for autopsies; Zed, the tongueless freed slave covered with scars like tattoos who does the coroner's dirty work; Hudson Greathouse, Matthew's enthusiastic taskmaster of a tutor; a Prussian Count; a nymphomaniac who becomes Matthew's first verifiable encounter with the opposite sex (and his second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and perhaps more, all in one night); a vicar with a dark secret that could ruin him; and a man with spring-loaded choppers that click and pop when he talks.

One character's foibles stretch credibility. Edward Hyde, also known as Lord Cornbury, is the new governor of New York. For his first public appearance at a town meeting, he wears a yellow dress, lemon hat adorned with peacock feathers, bouffant wig, French heels and rouge. While a man in such garb might be found in modern New York, the notion of a cross-dressing politician in 1702 is beyond the pale—and yet the real Cornbury, possibly the worst governor Britain ever imposed on an American colony, was exactly as colorful and flamboyant as McCammon portrays.

There's a saying attributed to Chekhov that if a writer shows the reader a gun on the wall in act one, it must be fired in act three. McCammon distributes many such guns, literal and figurative, throughout the book, and the revelation of the importance of many of the subtle details he planted in plain sight is gratifying.

He also has some fun writing what is essentially a creation tale for the fictional detective, though at times the way Matthew gropes for a vocabulary to describe what he's doing and the tools of his newfound trade ("calling for backup," for example) seem a little contrived or disingenuous, as if one person could alone be responsible for the lexicon of a profession.

Some of McCammon's anachronistic in-jokes work better than others, too. Passing references to a murderous London barber (i.e. Sweeney Todd) and innovative bookstores that serve coffee seem gimmicky, but the scene written as the source of the metaphorical bull in a china shop is both amusing and advances the plot nicely. One passing reference remains unresolved—a Bedlam inmate recounts a dream in which he is on a bird that is "fat and shiny and took people in its stomach," an obvious reference to aviation two centuries before Kitty Hawk.

Matthew almost catches The Masker red handed (literally) moments after the killer increases his body count to four, chasing him through the streets of New York. However, in an interesting reversal, The Masker makes an overture to Matthew, delivering a mysterious diary into his hands. This volume is the McGuffin that drives the rest of the story as he tries to figure out the meaning of its cryptic entries and everyone else tries to get their hands on it.

Matthew starts to wonder if perhaps The Masker is on a mission of revenge. He uncovers the killer's identity with over 100 pages to go, but the murderer is only a symptom of New York's deeper crime problems. The climax of the book involves swordfights, the professor's apt pupils and a close encounter with the talons of bloodthirsty birds of prey. 

Matthew understands that his life will never be the same when his investigation brings him to Professor Fell's attention. By becoming a marked man, he guarantees he will lead a mostly lonely life. Anyone who becomes close to him—Grisby's granddaughter Berry, for example—might become a target for his unscrupulous enemies.

The Queen of Bedlam is Robert McCammon's first new fiction in many years. Speaks the Nightbird was written a decade before it was published in 2002. However, McCammon reportedly has more in store for Matthew Corbett and is already planning a third book in the series. His return to a regular publishing schedule is a welcome event.

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