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The Queen of Bedlam - Robert McCammon ”’Twas said better to light a candle than to curse the dark, but in the town of New York in the summer of 1702 one might do both, for the candles were small and the dark large, True, there were the town-appointed constables and watchmen, Yet often between Dock Street and the Broad Way these heroes of the nocturne lost their courage to a flask of John Barleycorn and the other temptations that beckoned so flagrantly on the midsummer breeze, be it the sound of merriment from the harbor taverns or the intoxicating scent of perfume from the rose-colored house of Polly Blossom.”

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Matthew Corbett’s World

Matthew Corbett our erstwhile hero from Speaks the Nightbird returns for another adventure. He is back in New York doing copy work for a lawyer by day, setting print for The Earwig in the evenings, and chasing after his nemesis Eben Ausley by night. Ausley was the overseer of the orphanage in which Matthew stayed until he was selected to be a clerk for a local lawyer. Ausley had a taste for young lads and what better place to find ready made victims than an orphanage.

Corbett is intelligent, doggedly diligent, and wants justice at any cost. He is certainly a serious lad not given to frivolities. His idea of having fun is to sit down and read Increase Mather’s Kometographia, Or a Discourse Concerning Comets.

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In his youthful exuberance he sometimes forgets the victim in his search for a conviction. Robert McCammon explores the idea of the cost of justice as Corbett chases down the victims of Ausley’s lust and tries to leverage them into testifying. They have moved on with their lives and are now grown men and don’t have any interest in facing the stigma of revealing what happened even if Ausley is convicted in the process. The only one with vengeance in his heart is Corbett who was not a victim of Ausley’s attentions. I understand the desire to put an animal like Ausley out of circulation, but the cost would have been men who had made a life for themselves in New York having to leave and start again elsewhere once their shame is revealed. On the other hand there are the future victims to be considered as well. The cost of justice is just simply too high

Matthew Corbett wants to be a lawyer, but in 1702 the only way for an American to become a lawyer was to go to England to school, a very expensive proposition. This is long before a police force has been formed, constables and watchmen were basically volunteers, untrained, and generally drunk. Corbett is a natural bloodhound who with a smattering of clues can keep pursuing the truth. As it happens a serial killer is loose on New York, killing prominent members of society. Soon Corbett has put aside his investigation into Ausley and focuses on unmasking “The Masker”.

He is lead into temptation:

”Polly leaned in so close her eyes, startlingly blue and clear, became the world. ‘We don’t wish to frighten you away, your very first visit,’ she all but whispered in his ear.
In spite of the rigid design of his mission, Matthew had begun to sweat both at temples and under his arms. His stomach felt crawly. Polly Blossom was a handsome woman, no doubt. Her thick blond ringlets had no need of a whore’s wig, and she wore only a modicum of blue shadow-paint above his eyes. Her full, pouting lips--so close to his own mouth!--were daubed with pink. Her color was healthy, her body with its full swell of breasts and hips clothed in a rich indigo gown embroidered with lighter blue silk flowers...and perfume that smelled like peaches.”

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A Place of ILL Repute

Matthew escapes Polly Blossom’s bordello with his virtue intact...barely. He is not so lucky when he is drugged on the estate of a notorious villain and thrown as punishment to a nymphomaniac. His only other sexual congress was with an accused witch in Speaks the Nightbird he was under a spell which made his memories hazy as to exactly what happened. There seems to be a pattern with Young Corbett. He has to be inebriated in order to have sex.

”He had been thrown to Charity LeClaire and was serving as a scratch for the nymph’s itch. All he could do was be battered and beaten, tossed and trumpled, rowdied and rompled and rigidified. Up was down, and down was up, and at some point the bed broke and the whole heaving world slid sideways. A mouth sucked his mouth, a hand grasped his hair, a second hand caught his beans, and eager thighs slammed down in a spine-bending maneuver both frenzied and frantic....
Then after a respite that seemed as long as eight seconds, Matthew felt himself seized by the ankles and dragged along with the bedsheets upon the chamber’s floor, where Miss LeClaire continued her demonstration of the lusty art. Matthew swore he felt his soul trying to float free of his body. After so many explosions of energy, probably helped along by the wicked drug, he was now only shooting forth blue air.”

I left out the more saucier elements mostly for the sake of space. I think you all get the idea. I really thought that McCammon might use this moment for more than just a bit of titillation by tying it back to the sexual assaults endured by the orphan boys. Matthew did not report this assault maybe because in that day and age who would believe a man could be raped by a woman. He had the added problem of having stored some rather memorable moments even if they are a bit hazy.

Matthew is recruited to work for the first ever detective agency in the United States. It is a London based firm run by the widow of the originator. In the course of his investigations he digs up a roach infested body. His house is imploded and knocked down by a crazed bull. His “girlfriend”, granddaughter of the printer that Matthew helps, seems to be a curse to those around her. The case takes him to an insane asylum to interview The Queen of Bedlam, a woman waiting for a ship The King’s Reply long past it’s scheduled arrival date. Somehow she is tied into the whole Masker business. Matthew has a few words with an inmate named Mister Slaughter. Since the third book bears his name I have to feel that McCammon has given us a preview of the villain for the next installment. Overall the book is a bit bloated, but it turns into a rollicking fun adventure. I will certainly sign on for adventure #3.