Magnificently insane Mystery
I am a big fan of Musgrave's mysteries, and the imagination behind them. I've read the first two books in this series, both given 5 stars, and this one, I must say is my favorite. So, yeah, definitely 5 stars. The story takes place in the 1800s. I like that this fiction story is based on some true, historical facts. It's remarkable how Musgrave can put together a wonderful magnificent story. The plot has a great depth, behind the unfairly institutionalized women and children. I like that the story was based on the first mental health hospital in California, which gives the story a sense of realism. A real page-turner with intense and multi-dimensional characters.
When 12-year-old Polly Bedford witnesses a murder on another neighbourhood girl, her parents have her committed into the Stockton Insane Asylum because they don’t want her to be involved with the police. Both families, victim’s and witnesses’, are moving in the highest social circles on 1887 San Francisco and Stockton’s society. The girl’s aunt turns to attorney Clara Foltz (also a real person) to find out the truth. Clara’s own 17-year-old daughter volunteers to go undercover and pose as a patient.
A very interesting blood-curdling story made up from a mix from historical really existing figures, places and practises or institutions. Actually, it was only when I recognised Laura De Force Gordon from another mystery “(Deadly proof” by Louisa M. Locke. Check it out for it’s well worth reading) that I realised that these were not a bunch of merely made-up characters, but often real people. But not only a lot of the actors but also the scene on which the action takes place is as authentic as possible. The actual asylum in Stockton was still being used until 1995. It can’t be easy to incorporate that many historical characters and places into a work of fiction as you constantly have to keep track of both the real historical timeline and the narrative of your fictional story that has to match seamlessly. And I think Mr Musgrave offers here an excellent example of how this is done. Even his language is old fashioned and extremely befitting of the period. I actually had to check if this was a new book and not a re-edition of a 19th-century writer.
Sometimes the book builds rather strongly further on events in a previous volume; it’s not impossible for new readers to pick in, but a short resume of those adventures would be nice.
Injustice from an intolerant paternalistic system that allows men to incarcerate their unruly children and defiant or too clever (for their own good) wives in a mental asylum. Often used as a manner to get their hands on the spousal possessions or wealth.
People have been committed for heavy menstrual pains, not being able to speak English, even for being drunk in public. California, where Stockton is, had the largest amount of inmates per head.
The staff openly sell drugs to the richer women committed to the asylum; Those are also treated better than the poor. Those are shackled and are forced to labour.
The institutionalising of people can bring great fortune to those who know to play the game well. Regardless of the progress in mental healthcare and the perception that society as a whole has on a number of psychological ailments, there’s still stigma attached to patients of psychiatrists and psychologists
While investigating the murder, they can’t help but notice that there’s a few other practises in the asylum that doesn’t add up and certainly isn’t in the patient’s best interests. So a committee of concerned citizens is formed to check up on the standards applied by the institution.
They also come across the strange and hardly humane experiments of Dr Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. A scientist with interests in eugenics, white supremacy, male domination. Whether or not you agree or dislike his moral and political opinions and standards, you can’t deny the scientific data he collected and the research that’s later been done, based on these cruel and inhumane experiments. And some of those practices, like forced sterilisation, aren’t completely resolved to this day. Actually, many conservative or religious voices demand such measures to be taken sacrifices these
In 1888 a real reporter had himself committed to the Stockton Asylum and wrote later on a rather positive report about his experiences in there (about the male wing obviously) as it was not as bad as he had expected.
You can’t help but feel sorry for most of those poor incarcerated and tortured souls; They were all just thrown in a heap and locked up to be forgotten by the prim and proper society. No-one ever tried to talk to or understand those women or why they acted (as what was perceived as) crazy.
Most of all, we women shouldn’t forget the efforts made and sacrifices given by these early pioneers of women’s rights and feminism. A fact that’s all too easily forgotten when we put our feet under the table at night instead of being shackled to the cooker and laundry. (And we’ve got machines for that as well.)
Indeed a very interesting, thrilling historic mystery that makes you think twice about certain things we take for granted.