Book Review: The Queen of Bedlam by Robert McCammon

I can see why Robert McCammon has built up a devoted following. He can write a really good sentence and create complex, multi-layered characters -- when he wants to. But he's also quite willing to use much cruder language and to rely on stereotypes for his characters. At times while reading The Queen of Bedlam, I couldn't help but wonder if two different people wrote this book.
The Queen of Bedlam
by Robert R. McCammon
Gallery Books, 2007

Although Robert McCammon has a long history of writing best-selling horror novels, I generally avoid horror. As a result, this book is both the second book in the Matthew Corbett series and the second McCammon novel I’ve read.

Book Review: The Queen of Bedlam by Robert McCammon

To give you a bit of background: Matthew Corbett is a 20-something former clerk who turns out to be pretty good at solving mysteries. After solving a complex case in the Carolinas (the plot of the first Matthew Corbett book, Speaks the Nightbird), Matthew is recruited as a member of the fledgling Herrald investigative agency. Part of the mystery in this book — who is the Queen of Bedlam — Matthew investigates as a member of this agency, and part of it — identifying the dread Masker and stopping his murderous rampage — Matthew undertakes as a private commission.

I can see why McCammon has developed such a devoted following, and yet…

Although I had never read him before, McCammon strikes me as one of those authors who develops a passionate following. And I can see why. In addition to his considerable storytelling skills, Robert McCammon can really write a great sentence–when he wants to.

Consider the opening line:

“‘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 was large.”

From The Queen of Bedlam by Robert McCammon

And the closing image:

“How like a maze a fingerprint was, he thought. How like the unknown streets and alleys of a strange city. Curving and circling, ending here and going there, snaking and twisting and cut by a slash. Matthew followed the maze with his glass, deeper and deeper, deeper still. Deeper yet, toward the center of it all.”

From The Queen of Bedlam by Robert McCammon

I picked those two because they were easy to find again, but there are many more lovely sentences like that in this 645-page book. Unfortunately there are also lots of sentences like

“The horses were really hauling ass.”

From The Queen of Bedlam by Robert McCammon

It’s like two entirely different people wrote this book. I prefer the one with the lovely turns of phrase.

I also had a hot and cold relationship with McCammon’s characters

McCammon’s Colonial America is vivid, earthy, and fascinating, if at times too crude for my taste. His characters belch and fart and vomit, and for some of them, that’s their good behavior. I have trouble reconciling that with the really lovely imagery.

I’ll start with the positive. I really like Matthew. He’s complex, believable, human without being distressingly crude, and smart — although not necessarily street-smart, a fact that McCammon makes excellent use of in driving the plot.

Although some of the secondary characters are well-developed, many read like crudely developed caricatures. I’m ok with that to a point. It’s not possible to make everyone three-dimensional, even in a book of this size. But while the men may or may not be fully developed, to a person, for the brief times they are allowed on stage in the story, the women read like stereotypes.

Some of these women are deeply problematic

You have the wealthy widow entrepreneur who’s keeping her late husband’s business alive, but is going to be simply the money behind the business. Day-to-day operations are run by — surprise — one of her husband’s old male friends, who may or may not be her current lover.

There’s the awkwardly unfashionable but personally lovely wanna-be painter/love interest, who might bring bad luck to everyone around her or who may just be a poseur who prefers to focus on the dramatic events in her daily life.

Rounding out the female cast, there’s the nymphomaniac, the redemptive prostitute, and a shadowy fourth figure who will no doubt turn out to be a criminal mastermind (or his love interest/right hand woman) in a future book.

The title character, the Queen of Bedlam, doesn’t even appear until page 330. And even then, she is given only one line. Apparently, she has been so traumatized by her past history that she spends her time staring out a window and doesn’t speak at all to anyone, except to ask if the king’s reply has arrived yet.

At the end of the book, McCammon says something about how the Queen of Bedlam is really New York, but that doesn’t actually address my fundamental problem with the way women are treated in this book. The female characters are simply not given the room to breathe that the men are.

This didn’t bother me in Speaks the Nightbird (the first in the Matthew Corbett series), because that book does feature a living breathing vibrant woman at the heart of the story, even if 80% of the book’s remaining population are men. But the woman at the heart of this book, the Queen of Bedlam, is so fixed in space that it highlights how static all the women are. I don’t know if this is just how McCammon writes women, because I’ve never read any of his other books.

Some books I can’t wait to keep reading. This was not one of them.

My final problem with this book was that while I really wanted to finish it, I wasn’t motivated to pick it up again once I put it down. It took me three weeks to read, in large part because I was content to have a few days go by without cracking it open. That said, the story was sufficiently compelling that I didn’t want to pick up any other book in its place.

Now that I’ve finished this book, I’m not sure whether to continue the series

I really like this Matthew guy. I’d like to know what he’s going to do next. And The Queen of Bedlam closed strong with one of those image-ridden sentences that I’m a total sucker for. But I’m not sure I’m ready to sign up for another three-week slog through a book filled with prose that is alternately sparkling and crude, and female characters that are basically flat.

I felt much of the same ambivalence when I finished Speaks the Nightbird. My interest in Matthew got me to pick up the next in the series. Unfortunately, the flaws that I forgave in Speaks the Nightbird bothered me quite a bit more the second time I visited McCammon’s Colonial America, and my affection for Matthew may not be enough to overcome them.

I don’t know if I’m going to read the next in the series, but if I do, I’ll be sure to tell you all about it.

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