A Fever of the Blood by Oscar de Muriel is a riveting new detective novel that evokes a spellbinding concoction of crime, history, and horror.
January 1, 1889, in Edinburgh, “Nine-Nails” McGray and Ian Frey are called to the lunatic asylum just in time to witness a horrific otherworldly occurrence, which first person narrator Frey recounts:
I could not contain a shudder when I saw that poor woman, partially concealed by the drapery.
I cannot say that she lay on her back. She was face upwards, but her spine was contorted brutally, forming a ghastly arch—her chest in the air, her weight resting on her hips and shoulders. Nobody’s back could bend like that without breaking a few vertebrae.
Her arms were twisted in odd directions, her hands stiff and her fingers set like claws. To complete the disturbing picture, her eyes were bloodshot and her mouth was wide open, unleashing a succession of horrendous cries.
Since both work for an agency with the mouthful of a title—Commission for the Elucidation of Unsolved Cases Presumably Related to the Odd and Ghostly—they have been called to the right place it would seem. The asylum is run by the sympathetic Dr. Clouston, who identifies the deceased as a nurse named Miss Greenwood.
This is where things become a bit tricky because, seven years prior, wealthy socialite Joel Ardglass was committed by his wife, Lady Anne, and it is Joel who is accused of Greenwood’s murder. Matters are complicated because Clouston had signed legally binding paperwork saying he wouldn’t divulge that Lady Anne had okayed Joel’s admittance. Remember, this is stuffy prim-and-proper Victorian society, after all, and eyebrows would be raised, feathers ruffled, and even worse, social standing lost—though it may beg the question: if they are dealing with murder, wouldn’t any contract be rendered null and void?
McGray has some connection to both Lady Anne and the “lunatic” asylum. Years back, not only had Lady Anne attempted to repossess the land where his family lived, but he placed his sister Amy, nicknamed Pansy, under Clouston’s care after she murdered their parents. McGray feels indebted to the good doctor for not only helping his sibling but also for running interference with Lady Anne on his behalf to retain the property where he now resides with Frey.
Adding to the intrigue, Joel had managed to break through Pansy’s closed-off shell and read to her. Head nurse Cassandra Smith testifies she heard them conversing before the murder of Miss Greenwood, and she adds a colorful explanation that two ghost hunters chomp at the bit over. She says, “Some patients have told us they’ve seen … ghosts, apparitions … lurking around, lurking around, always on new moon nights.”
The debut book of this series (The Strings of Murder) was compared to Sherlock Holmes and The X-Files by Publisher’s Weekly. A Fever of the Blood does have creepy elements that go bump in the night, à la Mulder and Scully’s FBI cases, and there’s the quirky investigating duo uncovering clues in the 19th century, but for this reader, McGray and Frey don’t have the unsettling creep-out factor of The X-Files, and I wasn’t as invested in the Frey play-by-play as when following Dr. Watson along the twisted, red herring-filled paths. There’s also Frey’s seemingly “extrasensory” observations that border on Daredevil Matt Murdock's awareness, like when he notes, “I saw McGray’s chest swell, and I could almost feel the heartbeat he’d skipped.” But I suppose it’s fitting for a paranormal detective unit.
A Fever of the Blood engages on its own merits in steadfast plotting, stock full of characters with hidden motivations all intriguingly connected. And other than a few too many exclamation points, it’s a brisk diversion.
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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.