Onyx reviews: The Queen of Bedlam by
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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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