The Queen of Bedlam - Robert McCammon
This is the sort-of sequel to McCammon's Speaks the Nightbird duology; it doesn't follow on directly, but contains the further adventures of Matthew Corbett, young legal clerk and detective in the making. Set in the late 17th century, Corbett has left the South and now finds himself working for an embryonic detective agency in an embryonic New York, still a small but busy port town huddled at the bottom of Manhattan Island. A serial killer known as "The Masker" has been murdering a string of respectable gentlemen, and when the town's inept volunteer police force prove themselves singularly incapable of solving the murders, Matthew's natural curiosity impels him to start his own investigations. Through rumours of brutal crime syndicates and dodgy dealing among the town's worthies, the trail leads him to a new-fangled mental institution outside the city, where a distinguished old lady sits in silence, her past a blank slate. Where did she come from, and how could she be connected to the crimes?
While lacking the swampy Southern atmosphere of Nightbird, this is still a cracking mystery, and McCammon has really developed the character of Corbett. He has a nice balance between the young and idealistic innocent, and the stubborn, intelligent crime-fighter he's growing into. The other characters here are a little more clichéd, but generally still fun to read about; there's a good comic turn with Corbett's tutor, Hudson Greathouse, a Bond-like swashbuckling rogue with little time for the more intellectual side of detective work.
I'm not particularly well versed in the early history of New York, but the town McCammon describes certainly feels authentic - a cheerfully grimy working port, full of colourful characters at all levels of society. There's not quite as much small-town quirkiness as in the previous books, but there are still plenty of entertaining side-stories to support the main plot thread, and the town becomes almost a character in itself. While the mystery is all wrapped up by the end of this one, the rather poignant conclusion makes it clear that young Mr Corbett will be back for more, and I for one am certainly looking forward to it.