London, June 1914. A young man is mauled to death at London Zoo after deliberately climbing into the bear pit. Shortly afterwards, another young man leaps to his death from the notorious Suicide Bridge. Two seemingly unconnected deaths – and yet there are similarities.
Following a third attempted suicide, Detective Inspector Silas Quinn knows he must uncover the link between the three men if he is to discover what caused them to take their own lives. The one tangible piece of evidence is a card found in each of the victims’ possession, depicting a crudely-drawn red hand. What does it signify? To find the answers, Quinn must revisit his own dark past. But can he keep his sanity in the process …?
The extract I’ve chosen is at the beginning of the book. The action takes place in Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, a place where Detective Inspector Silas Quinn was once an inmate many years ago. This scene introduces us to Stanley Ince, a sadistic orderly at the asylum, who had made Quinn’s life a misery when he was last a patient…
10 July, 1914
As he moved towards the central block of the asylum, he began to be aware of a second source of screaming. Sharper, rawer, louder than the first. He knew most of the inmates by their screams. But these new screams he did not recognize. He had the feeling that he had heard them once before, long ago. It was not impossible. The mad were never cured, and those who were from time to time released often found themselves readmitted.
He quickened his step, as if hurrying to meet an old friend. But as he reached the top of the stairs, he stopped dead. The screams were suddenly much louder here as they reverberated up the stairwell. And yes, there was something half-familiar about them. The pitch, the timbre, the peculiar ferocity coupled with a brittle fragility, the sharp broken edge of them. It was a long time ago. But he was beginning to be convinced he had heard these sounds before.
The young man he had thought of earlier now came to mind again. Could it really be?
His hand drifted towards the key fob in his pocket, as if for comfort. It was his protective talisman. And, of course, it had a more practical function. The youth had been the first to feel the brunt of it across his cheek.
Not a youth any more, Stanley had to remind himself. More than twenty years had passed. He would be middle-aged now. Stanley couldn’t be sure he would recognize the man, not from a distance. Time had a habit of ravaging lunatics more viciously than the sane.
It never failed to impress him how much chaos a single lunatic can generate, how quickly he can fill a room with it. Any room, of any size: the chaos expands around him. Put a single lunatic in the Albert Hall and he will fill it.
This one was all flailing arms and incoherent screaming. Frantic bursts of pacing, going nowhere, as if he was trying to break free from imaginary restraints. Coming to a sudden halt, as if fresh restraints now bound him.
The policeman who had brought him in stood nearby. His work was done, but he couldn’t quite tear himself away from the spectacle. For most people, a maniac in full, florid flow was not something you saw every day. There were two other men with him. One had the air of being some kind of official. A plain-clothes police detective, Stanley guessed. His expression was strangely anguished, almost as if he had some kind of connection with the individual at the centre of it all. The other man carried a physician’s leather bag.
The doctor was impatient to be gone. ‘It is out of our hands now, Macadam. We must leave him to those who are experts in this field.’
The man called Macadam shook his head disconsolately. He was evidently a policeman after all, for he commanded the uniform: ‘Come then, Constable. We’ve done our duty by him.’
For a moment it seemed that he would address the raging maelstrom directly. But he simply shook his head once more and followed the doctor out of the waiting room, calling out ‘Constable!’ for the lingering copper.
Two young inexperienced attendants – useless fuckers – were tiptoeing around the new admission, trying to reason with him. You cannot reason with a lunatic! Rush him, ground him, hold him down, pin his four limbs with a solid man squatting on each. Sit on his head if you have to. That was the only kind of reasoning your average lunatic could understand.
But still they persisted with their: ‘Now, sir, if you will just calm down.’
The lunatic alternated between rushing at them and running from them. This was some kind of acknowledgement of their existence at least. Otherwise, the man’s ravings bore no relation to what they were saying to him.
‘A bubble! A bubble! He was a bubble! And I have popped him!’
It was him, all right.
His hair was matted, and plastered to his head in wet clumps. It could have been sweat or some other liquid. Wiry grey tufts now grew at the temples, which were not there the last time Stanley had seen him. A growth of about five days shadowed his jowls. The rest of his face was smeared with grime and filth. There was a fresh wound on his forehead. His hands were covered in scabs and scratches, and possible bites. A nasty cut on his knee showed through a flapping hole in one trouser leg. His feet were bare and black and bleeding.
But the truth was, if you could look past all the superficial squalor of his appearance, he had aged comparatively well – well, that is, for a lunatic. His hair may have been matted and greying, but at least he still had hair. His face was dirty, but he did not have the emaciated features of the long-term destitute. Whatever crisis had propelled him into Colney Hatch had happened relatively recently.
Though they were soiled and torn now, his clothes were well tailored and essentially of good quality. The dubiously stained herringbone ulster was of a distinguished cut, bespoke by the looks of it. Beneath that he wore a three-piece suit, although his shirt had lost its collar and necktie. In one hand he clutched a battered bowler hat defensively.
The two wet-around-the-ears attendants coaxed him as if it were a knife. ‘Put down the hat now. There’s a good fellow.’
R. N. Morris is the author of eight historical crime novels. His first, A Gentle Axe, was published by Faber and Faber in 2007. Set in St Petersburg in the nineteenth century, it features Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Dostoevsky’s great novel, Crime and Punishment. The book was published in many countries, including Russia. He followed that up with A Vengeful Longing, which was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger. A Razor Wrapped in Silk came next, followed by The Cleansing Flames, which was nominated for the Ellis Peters Historical Novel Dagger. The Silas Quinn series of novels, set in London in 1914, began with Summon Up The Blood, followed by The Mannequin House, The Dark Palace and now The Red Hand of Fury, published on 31 March, 2018.
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