This is a review of the 2004 book 'The Madman's Tale' by John Katzenbach who is a new author to me in that I have never read any of his books. I stumbled upon this one on a swapping website and really fancied reading it. The book is 720 pages long and took me a record amount of time to read as it coincided with the birth of my second baby but I was determined to read it, squirreling away a couple of pages at a time when I took a bath or five minutes out of the feeding cycle.
A bit about...
The book is set in a Psychiatric Hospital, where we meet a number of key characters, and the patients who all have nicknames for each other and the staff. There's been a murder on the ward, a young nurse has been killed and it has to have been committed by one of the inmates or staff. An investigator arrives on the scene and imbeds herself in hospital life to try and find the murderer. Time is running out though and people are at risk and vulnerable whilst the killer is on the loose so the urgency of solving the case against the slow paced routine of the wards is a real page turner.
Francis is the first character we meet, as he is first committed to the hospital due to the voices he hears in his head. His family are concerned for his own safety but don't really want anything to do with him and his madness so he is alone and frightened. Another patient is admitted that day, Peter 'The Fireman' who immediately takes Francis under his wing and gives him his nickname 'C-Bird'. Peter is not mentally ill but has been hospitalised due to an unfortunate crime where he was seeking revenge (for the right reasons). We first meet the staff who admit Peter and Francis; 'Dr Gulp-a-Pill' the main Doctor who prescribes the drugs to make everyone quieten down and sleep at night; 'Short Blonde' a new trainee nurse who is inexperienced and just learning the ropes; Dr Evil (Evans) who runs the sessions for patients on their journey to recovery and then there's the other patients: Cleo, the Obese table tennis pro who believes she is an Egyptian Queen, Napoleon thinks he's leading the other patients in to battle and Newsman the man with an incredible memory for news articles and gives the edited headlines to his fellow inmates once he has memorised all that day's papers. Finally 'The Angel' who is the mysterious murderer, who's voice is sometimes seemingly in Francis's head. At first you doubt his existence but as the book progresses you know he is real and leaving evidence scattered around the hospital.
In the book, the time line jumps around a bit from the present day to Francis's time in the hospital, so in a way we know he survives and gets out of hospital eventually to live in his own flat but he is clearly still ill, hearing the voices and seeing visions of the people he knew in hospital twenty years ago. In his flat there are people knocking on the door but Francis is too afraid to answer the door and keep himself to himself. The neighbours are concerned and deliver food parcels every now and again to check he is still alive. Francis though, has a story to tell which becomes the actual book we are reading and he tells his version of events in the hospital which are dramatic and well-rounded from a man suffering with psychiatric issues.
For the first time ever, Francis finds a level of friendship in the hospital with some of the other patients and staff who are sympathetic to his situation and really care about his well being. He adapts to the routine of the ward well despite the food being awful and the dormitories over crowded. I found the book really fascinating to read and a good insight in to the old institutional way of caring for mentally ill people. The lead doctor is scared of his reputation when the murder has taken place and is keen to cover up what is happening to avoid bad press but he also knows that he needs to comply with the investigator when she turns up so reluctantly enables her to do her work.
I really can recommend this book as a compelling read with lots of surprises and twists in the story line. You can get a good feeling for what it was like to be in the hospital and the monotony of every day. Some of the writing is a little repetitive and spelled out for example when Francis has an idea, Peter repeats what he says almost to ensure the reader has grasped the direction of travel in the book which I tolerated but found a little bit patronising both to Francis and the reader. However, this is a really intriguing setting for a crime and you can see the mistakes the staff are making with regard to security as you go along in the book so you know something bad is just around the corner.