Dark Asylum by E. S. Thomson is the second book in the Jem Flockhart series, which is set in a crumbling Victorian asylum where a gruesome murder is committed and explores the early science of brain study while giving a chilling insight into an asylum's workings.
Last year, we were introduced to Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain in E. S. Thomson’s debut, Beloved Poison, and now our beloved cross-dressing apothecary detective is back in another character-driven historical mystery that’s so gritty, you’ll have to brush the soot off your stovepipe hat when you’re done. Dark Asylum proves that this series is a winner, and with characters like Jem and Will, readers are sure to keep coming back for more.
While you don’t have to read the first book in this series to follow the mystery here, I highly recommend you do so just to see the beautiful character development of Jem and the relationships she cultivates around her while attempting to disguise the truth of her sex. She passes as a male in order to freely navigate Victorian London and carry out her duties as the local apothecary, but once again, she and Will have become embroiled in a murder mystery—this time at Angel Meadow Asylum.
I can’t imagine a more terrifying and haunted place than a working insane asylum in the late 1800s, where caregiving practices for the mentally ill were abominable at best. Dr. Rutherford—one of the many doctors at the asylum prone to experimenting on patients—is found murdered, his own calipers shoved into his brain. Gruesomely, his ears were cut off and his lips and eyes were stitched closed in a very precise manner.
Dr. Rutherford was a fervent believer in a pseudo-science called phrenology, where head measurements were assumed to predict behavior in people. And he was especially interested in the heads of female criminals, which is how he ended up at Angel Meadow, a place that also housed the criminally insane. It’s not too far a leap to assume a resident of the asylum is responsible for the death, but of course, Jem has other ideas.
The mystery has its twists and turns, of course, but really, the most intriguing aspect of this series is its main character. Raised as a boy, Jem has the rare ability as a woman to live and move about London freely in a time period in which a woman’s every move and thought was pretty much dictated for her. This is not unique in literature, but what is unique is how her sexuality is still completely bound by her situation. In effect, she’s not as free as she thinks. While she walks about life as a man and prefers women for romantic company, she’s not free to act upon her desires because to do so would expose her true identity and risk everything.
‘Yes, I saw her.’ I couldn’t say more. Susan Chance had been on my more than I cared to admit. I was used to a lonely life, but I could still remember how it felt to touch and be touched by someone I loved with my whole physical being, whose nearness made my skin prickle and my blood sing in my veins. And yet, as much as I longed again for love, I knew I could never have it. For who would want me? I could not be a husband any more than I could be a wife. But what about Will? Why should Will endure a similar loneliness? I washed him searching the crowd for Susan Chance, his face aglow, and felt sadness flood through me like salt water.
It makes one wonder if Jem will ever be free, and we long for her ultimate happiness as much as she does. But will this rather dreary London setting find a Dickensian ending, or will Jem triumph against the odds?
It’s her character that has me ready for more books in this series. But, it’s not all sighs for lack of romance, however. Jem’s relationship with Will shows that love of a sort is possible for her. It’s a deep friendship full of trust (as much trust as there can be with Jem’s big secret between them) and a comfortable companionship. And Gabriel, Jem’s young apprentice, has so much potential for growth as a character and companion that I look forward to seeing where the next adventures lead all three of them.
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Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.