In this third installment of a mystery series, a 19th-century San Francisco attorney and detective leads an investigation into abusive practices at an insane asylum.
In San Francisco in 1887, an unusual crew occupies 1 Nob Hill, the mansion built by railroad magnate Mark Hopkins. His widow, Mary, lives there but has dementia and serves as “benefactress” to the other occupants: Clara Foltz, California’s first female lawyer, a single mother, and the true head of the household; her brood of children; and her best friend, Ah Toy, a former Chinatown madam. With some help—including psychic assistance—the group has solved some difficult cases. Now Clara’s daughter Bertha May, 17, is pretending to be mentally unstable at the Stockton State Insane Asylum, where her friend Polly Bedford, 12, has been committed by her parents after witnessing the murder of Winnifred Cotton, 10, a Nob Hill neighbor. Bertha’s mission is to discover what Polly really saw, and the whole team wants to expose illegal commitments targeting wives, children, and immigrants. To that end, they form a citizens’ committee as the public face of the investigation while continuing undercover work. What they discover goes beyond the iniquities of false commitments into some bizarre territory—including spiritualism, telepathy, conjoined twins, and elaborate experiments carried out by eugenicists Francis Galton and Dr. Emil Kraepelin. Can justice be served? Musgrave (The Spiritualist Murders, 2018, etc.) has some potent ingredients in this fantastical stew, spiced with many real-life figures, like Foltz, Toy, Galton, Kraepelin, and Elizabeth Packard, who helped reform commitment laws in the 1860s after being confined to an asylum when she questioned her husband’s opinions. The setting is atmospheric and the subject, captivating. But clumsy writing (“Their diaphragms undulating their bosoms”), a painful German accent (“Bzychozis can ofden pe proken ven zee badient exberiences zee traumatic effent akain”), anachronisms (the terms “sexist” and “racist”), and murky paranormal phenomena mar the story. And, despite their association with eugenics, Galton and Kraepelin don’t deserve such grotesque caricatures.
A compelling historical setting and subject hampered by awkward prose.