You may recall my recent review of Dark Asylum by E S Thomson, the second in the Jem Flockhart series of mysteries, set in the medical world of the early Victorian age. Following my review, the publishers asked if I’d like to post an extract from the book. And who am I to refuse the chance to convince my readers of the quality of a book? This is from the opening chapter of Dark Asylum, setting the scene. Enjoy.
“My name is Jem Flockhart. My mother died as I was born; my father hanged for a crime he did not commit. I am their only surviving child – a daughter, whose identity my father swapped at birth for my dead twin brother’s. Who I am is concealed beneath shirt and britches – and behind a port-wine birthmark that covers my eyes and nose like a Venetian courtesan’s mask. No one looks beyond such a stain and I am known everywhere as Mr Flockhart the apothecary, formerly of St Saviour’s Infirmary. Since the infirmary was razed to the ground I am also Mr Flockhart of Fishbait Lane, supplier of fine herbs and quality remedies – for those unable, or unwilling, to make the journey to St Saviour’s new location south of the river.
Do I regret not accompanying the infirmary when it left? After all, there had been an apothecary named Flockhart there for four generations. But they had allowed my father to be sent to the gallows; they had turned their faces away from the fact that one of their number had been responsible for the murder of my friend Dr Bain, and they had caused me to lose someone so dear to me that I still could not think of her without pain. St Saviour’s had made me who I was, but I had no use for the place now. I took from it only what I needed: the memory of my father, the physic garden, and my most beloved friend and companion Will Quartermain. Will had come to work on the demolition of the old infirmary, and in those terrible last days had proved himself to be the very best of men. We shared lodgings, he and I, above the apothecary on Fishbait Lane, along with my apprentice Gabriel Locke.
We were still in the parish of St Saviour’s: still close to the rookeries of Prior’s Rents and still within sight of the high walls of Angel Meadow Asylum.
The asylum had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. As an apprentice I had rarely gone up to the place as my work at St Saviour’s kept me busy all day, but the building had been visible from the window of my bedroom and I looked out at it every morning, and every night. It was younger than St Saviour’s with its medieval cellars and ancient chapel, and yet it looked older; a dark, square-shouldered hulk as fearful to me as a prison. Hunched in her chair before the apothecary stove, as the night drew in and the cold fogs of September rubbed against our window panes, Mrs Speedicut, St Saviour’s fat old matron, had painted a vivid picture of its infernal interior: a warren of dingy corridors; the mad, affixed by chains to its walls, rending their clothes and gnawing like beasts on the straw they had pulled from their filthy mattresses.
‘How d’you know such things?’ I had asked. ‘I’ve never seen you go near the place!’
She had boxed my ears. ‘’Ow dare you question me! Didn’t my own dear Mr Speedicut end up in the place, his mind turned to mush by drink and intemp’rate be’aviour?’ I had yet to learn that the fate of ‘dear Mr Speedicut’ changed depending on whatever fiction the woman was intent upon. I remembered Mrs Speedicut sitting back and sucking on her pipe, grinning like a gargoyle as she released a brimstone cloud. ‘They got a ward for children too. Them’s what’s peculiar. Unnat’ral.’ She had squinted through the smoke at my crimson birthmark, her expression stony. ‘Ones like you.’
I considered this exchange as Will and I walked up the broad thoroughfare – wide enough to allow a padded carriage to plunge along it at speed – that led to the gates of the asylum. I would never have guessed back then that my uncle would die in the place and my father would end up a resident, both of them driven mad by a hereditary condition that made sleep impossible. Now, as we waited to see whether I might share my father’s fate, I too had become a regular visitor. Dr Hawkins, the asylum’s medical superintendent, had become my friend, as he had been my uncle’s and my father’s. He had been away in Paris for almost a year, and I had missed him greatly, for there were things I said to him – fears for my future, worries about how I might manage my own descent into the abyss, the strain of living with the unknown – with which I had not the heart to burden Will. I was glad to think that he would soon be back. His replacement at Angel Meadow was a Dr Rutherford, who had worked there for years as a consultant and was pleased to be offered the role as superintendent, even if it was only while Dr Hawkins was away.
Initially, Dr Rutherford’s interest in my case had been rather oblique. If I was not actually mad, what purpose was there in discussing the matter? And yet his curiosity was evident, and he had agreed to continue with Dr Hawkins’s inquiries: noting down my sleep patterns, listening to my heart rate, testing my reflexes. The results were recorded in a ledger, so that any changes, however slight, might be observed and monitored. Over time, his interest in me had grown, so that I had come to dislike these consultations. Only if Will came with me did I feel less on edge.
I looked up at the asylum’s dark edifice of soot-blackened bricks. Here and there patches of moisture glimmered upon its anthracite surface, as if it were blotched with weeping sores. Above the entrance, two windows stared down the thoroughfare. At one of them a face looked out, pale and unsmiling. Mrs Lunge. The asylum’s housekeeper, she was matron, turnkey and quartermaster all rolled into one. Buttoned up to the neck in stiff black crêpe, her hair drawn back tightly beneath her widow’s cap, her keen grey eyes were fixed upon us. She would already have sent Pole down to let us in, would already have informed Dr Rutherford that I was on my way, and probably, somehow, would already know what was in the packet I had in my pocket and who it was for.
In fact, the packet contained a quality of dawamesc – a paste made from Cannabis indica – and it was destined for Dr Golspie, the asylum’s youngest and most inquiring physician. Truth be told, I was not entirely certain I should be giving Dr Golspie the stuff at all, for there was something reckless and impulsive about him that, although it appealed to me, also filled me with disquiet.
And yet he was my friend and he had asked me, and his motives were both exploratory and scientific. He would surely treat the stuff with the respect it deserved.”
Needless to say, he doesn’t… Dark Asylum is published by Constable Books and available from good bookshops (and probably bad ones as well…)