The Stockton Insane Asylum Murder (Portia of the Pacific Historical Mysteries) by James Musgrove takes us inside a typical Californian Asylum at the end of the nineteenth century. At this time, committal of a patient in the asylum was common for both women and children in the patriarchal paradigm of that era. It seemed, when women became too strident or too annoying to their husbands, or they could see a financial benefit in jettisoning her, it was an, all too easy, thing to do. Clara Foltz is a private detective and a loud champion of women’s rights. When she is approached by an aunt of a young girl committed to the asylum after witnessing a murder committed on her wealthy parents’ estate, she joins forces with a former asylum inmate, the redoubtable Mrs Elizabeth Packard also a crusading activist to investigate what may be a miscarriage of justice. What Clara and her team find is much more than just a wrongly committed patient, but a systematic and endemic attitude of corruption, misogyny and racism at the highest levels of the asylum and the government. The crusading team are determined to unravel the mystery of the committed child but also to bring down the corrupt and evil experimenters who are trying to prove the superiority of the white elites of America.
What I did enjoy about The Stockton Insane Asylum Murder (Portia of the Pacific Historical Mysteries) was the mirror it held up to us today. Despite well over a century having passed by, many of the deep set beliefs and ideals portrayed by author James Musgrove in this story of “white superiority” are still alive and kicking and sadly finding more traction than ever before in the United States at present. I found it fascinating that these strong, crusading women even back then, knew the answers to society’s ills and yet today, we are still crying out for powerful female leadership, with the compassion and common sense evident in this story. Clearly the patriarchal paradigm is still a long way from being fractured and done away with. The secondary characters in the story were, in some ways, the stars of the tale. I was particularly taken with the two sets of triplets, two sets of whom were conjoined twins. They added an almost Barnum and Bailey character to the story and brought to mind the sorts of experiments that would be practised some sixty-odd years later in another evil attempt to prove Aryan elite superiority. The story flows well, with the author’s style being readable and succinct. I did, initially have some difficulty isolating, in my mind, who was who and doing what to whom, but that aside, this was a satisfying read. If you love historical fiction rooted in reality and you look for strong, independent and fierce female lead characters, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy this book immensely.