My big plan for 2018 is to read a heck of a lot more Gothic fiction and what better way to start the year than to revisit my old pals Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain over in (a very grimy) 19th Century London. This is the second book in the series; the first is Beloved Poison, which sadly I didn’t write a review for, but don’t expect many spoilers – this is the type of series that has recurring characters and themes but is a new mystery. You could easily pick up either book and not spoil much of the other.
Jem Flockhart is the last in a long line of Apothecaries, and friends with quite a lot of the doctors in London who he visits often at Angel Meadow asylum, with his architect friend Will. The big difference between Jem and the rest of the cast is that Jem is actually a woman, who has been dressing like a man ever since she was raised a boy. It makes very interesting points about gender, but please don’t jump up thinking this is a feminist tale as Dark Asylum is very plot driven.
I love both Jem and Will as characters, both caring and genuine and I can’t help but love the friendly love between them. They’re well developed, both with their little flaws but both adorable. They make a great little investigating team and Gabriel, the almost teenager who strops about in the background, makes a fun 3rd point to their triangle.
The storyline follows Jem and Will as they try to uncover who has been killing doctors, framing patients and generally terrorising their corner of London. There is a lot of subsequent discussion of madness, especially in women, and its a lot of fun to see old and ‘new’ methods of psychology and physiognomy brought to life. I think the medical talk is actually what grounds the book and stops it from being completely ridiculous, it gives the story a little bit more gravity in light of its more larger than life characters. Normally I’d be more than happy to overanalyse any philosophical and psychological talk in a novel, but actually this presents the thoughts of the day rather than making a comment upon them.
The only way I can describe the feel of the plot is a “romp”. I can fully visually Jem and Will running down a filthy backstreet in the main slum in the story, Priors Rents, frock coats flapping, holding on to their stove pipes hats for dear life. I have so much love for its ridiculousness. There’s blood and gore aplenty, savage killings, secret identities, hidden clues – everything I’ve needed from an easy Gothic read since I read the first book.
Overall, I loved it again. I love to be transported to that era, and the medical and psychological aspects are my absolute favourite. The breakneck speed of the plot stops me from ever losing focus and I always find myself wanting to be back with the characters wondering what situation they’ll get into next.