John Harwood’s The Asylum (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) is a suspenseful, compelling Victorian-era mystery about a young woman, Georgina Ferrars, who awakens in a private asylum in Cornwall with no memory of how she came to be there. When the staff at Tregannon House inform Georgina that she actually checked herself in under a different name—and then suffered a seizure—Georgina realizes she has lost more than her freedom: she has lost all memory of the previous few weeks of her life. Confused and afraid, Georgina requests a telegram be sent to her uncle in London, asking him to confirm she is who she says she is … but when he replies, saying that Georgina Ferrars is still in London, Georgina finds herself involuntarily confined as a certified madwoman.
The ephemeral nature of memory is at the core of The Asylum, as is identity. Most of the main characters all seem to harbor some doubt about who they really are, even those not actively attempting to prove they are not imposters in their own lives. Harwood takes this very human, and relatively common anxiety, and over the course of his novel masterfully reveals his story by peeling away layers upon layers of family secrets while effectively playing on tropes of the traditional Gothic novel.
Those who enjoy misty moors, old mansions, sinister schemes, and parlor drama will find much to like in The Asylum, as will those with a penchant for Jane Austen novels—amusingly, several familiar Austenian surnames appear throughout the novel (Ferrars, Fairfax, etc.). Though the ending of the book feels somewhat rushed, and even at times staged, Harwood manages one of the more difficult feats of the mystery novel: making many of the central enigmas just as intriguing when revealed as they were when obscure. —MT
Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), the second in the DeWitt series by Sara Gran, is a tear-soaked and coffee-stained love letter to private eyes, particularly fictional ones. For DeWitt, a PI with unusual practices informed by the vaguely supernatural text Détection, the whole of her social world revolves around detection. Her girlhood daydreams of being an investigator have all come true, but DeWitt has other adolescent habits—drug use for one, failure with relationships for another—that don’t serve her well. DeWitt has surrendered everything to the search for truth. Justice comes in at a distant second.
DeWitt wisely christens the case of a murdered ex-lover, the rocker Paul Casablancas, the Case of the Kali Yuga. All the world, the whole aeon, is degenerate and depraved. As a mystery, the case is quite easily solved: only one character really has a motive, and the red herring is a mild one, but whodunit is hardly the point of Bohemian Highway. The costs of simply being alive, and of experiencing the passions of the world—to humanity in general and to women (and Claire!) in particular—are the thematic issue.
But the novel’s philosophy is leavened with a healthy dose of blackest comedy, largely in Dewitt’s observations about the world, and about the nature of genre. Early in the case of the Kali Yuga, she seeks out the advice of the Red Detective, who lives homeless in the Oakland Hills. “Every case is a missing girl case,” he explains. “There’s no murder case, robbery case, missing girl case. Every case is every case.” Claire has a missing girl in her past—the search for a vanished friend ties the individual books together as a series—but is also a missing girl herself. Every case is every case and every woman is a missing girl. Mysteries don’t get much darker than this. A must read for lovers of noir, and for those interested in a soupcon of the occult in their crime fiction.—NM