Book Review: Asylum by Jeannette de Beauvoir

Jeannette de Beauvoir
Minotaur Books, March 2015
ISBN 978-1-250-04539-3

From the publisher—

Martine LeDuc is the director of PR for the mayor’s office in Montreal. When four women are found brutally murdered and shockingly posed on park benches throughout the city over several months, Martine’s boss fears a PR disaster for the still busy tourist season, and Martine is now also tasked with acting as liaison between the mayor and the police department. The women were of varying ages, backgrounds and bodytypes and seemed to have nothing in common. Yet the macabre presentation of their bodies hints at a connection. Martine is paired with a young detective, Julian Fletcher, and together they dig deep into the city’s and the country’s past, only to uncover a dark secret dating back to the 1950s, when orphanages in Montreal and elsewhere were converted to asylums in order to gain more funding. The children were subjected to horrific experiments such as lobotomies, electroshock therapy, and psychotropic medication, and many of them died in the process. The survivors were supposedly compensated for their trauma by the government and the cases seem to have been settled. So who is bearing a grudge now, and why did these four women have to die?

Not until Martine finds herself imprisoned in the terrifying steam tunnels underneath the old asylum does she put the pieces together. And it is almost too late for her…

The evil that humans can do can never be a real surprise but it is still shocking to discover that there seem to be few, if any, limits to that evil. Asylum opens a window on a time in Montreal’s past that was entirely unknown to me and, I suspect, to many readers.

I’m of two minds when contemplating how to describe my reaction to this book. On the one hand, it’s a really good mystery, a mixture of amateur sleuth and police procedural. There are a few too many coincidences and Martine escapes harm a bit too facilely sometimes but she’s a likeable protagonist as is Detective Julian Fletcher. I enjoyed riding along with them as they investigated and didn’t guess things too early. In short, this is a well-written piece of crime fiction.

On the other hand, the voices of the children in the asylum were heartbreaking and any reader who can’t bear seeing harm come to children should probably avoid, if not the entire book, at least the italicized sections at the end of some chapters. I happen to believe it’s important to know our history even if it seems we don’t often learn from it; if we don’t examine what our forbears have done, it’s much more likely such things will happen again. Ms. de Beauvoir includes an Author’s Note that reveals the known truths behind the story and the list of names of some of the victims is especially poignant. When all is said and done, this is a disturbing tale but I’m glad to have read it.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2015.