After taking a full decade off from writing, Robert McCammon decided to rethink his career and when he finally returned with Speaks the Nightbird in 2002 he was almost a different writer. After winning a remarkable three Stoker Awards in the 80s and having a handful of bestsellers, in the early 90s you could see him going through a Melvillian authorial meltdown as his books became more brilliant, more quirky and less commercially successful, culminating in 1992 with the remarkable Gone South which was too strange for most readers, though it remains one of my favorites. Then he just disappeared and not a word was seen in print for 10 years.
When he returned to writing in 2002 it was with a mammoth, Dickensian historical mystery novel which turned out to be the first in a series. Speaks the Nightbird is set in colonial America in 1699 and centers around the experiences of a young magistrate’s clerk named Matthew Corbett who has a dangerous compulsion to find out the truth at any cost. It is the story of his disastrous trip with the judge he works for to provide judicial services to an isolated and very troubled community, a trip which plunges Corbett into the middle of a dangerous mystery which he barely survives. But Corbett does survive, and lives on to be the central character in what is developing into a very promising series of novels.
The Queen of Bedlam is the second entry in the series, set in the early 1700s in Corbett’s home town of New York City. It paints a phenomenally well developed picture of the colonial city and its inhabitants, with lots of interesting characters and great attention to factual details of the period. The characters include the tradesmen and businessmen of the city, orphans raised with Corbett in the public orphanage who are integrating into society with varying degrees of success, and prominent historical characters including the notorious Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, who was the first Royal Governor of New York and a flamboyant transvestite.
It’s a long and rambling novel with lots of characters and a gradual exploration of Corbett’s personality and how it was formed by his difficult childhood. It often feels like a walking tour of colonial New York, but along the way it develops a complex story with several mysteries to be solved. Corbett is a character in transition in this book, dissatisfied with his work as a magistrate’s clerk and looking for work more suited to his talents and his compulsion to seek the truth. And a new and better job does eventually find him, bringing with it danger and a conspiracy with terrifying enemies and stalwart allies.
Despite the length of The Queen of Bedlam it’s only the beginning of the telling of Corbett’s tale, and although it’s complete in itself and Corbett goes through significant and life-changing experiences and solves a web of mysteries, there’s clearly much more in store for Corbett in subsequent volumes, which McCammon will hopefully deliver without another decade-long vacation.
I literally could not put this book down once I started and had to make time to read it and put off other activities. Despite its length, it was a quick and easy read which kept me engaged the whole way through. McCammon remains the excellent writer he has always been, but in this new series he has found a unique voice with interesting themes to explore and a setting with which he seems to be very comfortable. The Queen of Bedlam is an even better novel than the remarkable Speaks the Nightbird and I think it’s about the best thing I read in 2007, a year which featured some very good novels.