Reviewer’s note: After accepting Questionable Minds for review, we realized it is not a queer story and there are no queer characters indicated. The protagonist is a cis-het man with a cis-het lover. While there is no homophobia, there are scenes that show the protagonist isn’t queer and is discomfited by the idea of it, as is common for the time period.
In the years since psionic powers, known as mentalism, were discovered in England, Sir Simon Taggart has become known throughout London as an oddity—a man with seemingly no mentalist ability, but unaffected by mental powers, such as clairvoyance or mesmerism. While pitied or scorned by some for not being blessed as someone on the next rung of the evolutionary ladder, Simon has become an asset to the Mentalist Investigation Department (MID) of Scotland Yard; his barony gives him access to members of high society who view the police as lower class nuisances and his mental shields helped him take down a powerful mentalist who threatened the Crown and many others over the years. Known colloquially as the Baronet Detective, Simon is almost as notorious as Sherlock Holmes.
While Simon finds his notoriety tiresome and undeserved, he’s more than happy to work with the MID. They proved his wife Agnes hadn’t committed suicide, but was actually mesmerized to hang herself, and working with them lets him feed his obsession—unmasking the Guvnor (overlord of the criminal underworld in London and the man tasked with hiring his wife’s murderer) and punishing him and whoever commissioned the hit. When a case Simon’s working stalls, he finds himself looking into the murder and mutilation of a female mentalist. It soon becomes apparent there’s a new monster on the streets with frightening powers, and as Simon becomes embroiled in the case, he’s forced to face just how far he’ll go and what he’ll sacrifice for revenge.
Questionable Minds is an engaging paranormal mystery thriller that takes place in an alternate universe where Victorian belief in mentalism and some notable Victorian fictional characters are real. I’m typically drawn to AU works that utilize real events and fictional characters from a specific time period because I’m always curious what an author will do with them, and while I tend to avoid Jack the Ripper stories because he’s taken up WAY too much space in fiction, I was intrigued to see how the author would develop a world where mentalism is real, and overall I like what Fraser does. The narrative is populated by many Victorian-age fictional characters, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Inspector Pitt, and several Sir Doyle characters, and melds them well with its historical figures. I also appreciate that while the Ripper is a self-aggrandizing, misogynist twat, his villainy isn’t simply “see how crazy and evil I am”; his victims aren’t treated completely as after-thoughts and props; and he isn’t the most notable baddy in the story.
Additionally, Simon is an interesting protagonist to follow. Though a typical husband for his times (marrying well and treating Agnes courteously, while sampling all the goods the brothels offer), the strained relationship they had complicates his grief with guilt and manifests in blinding rage; his hunt for the Guvnor in the slums makes him more sympathetic of the poor than his peers; and though progressive when it comes to some women’s issues, it’s in that “not in my home” way—planning to force his daughter into marriage while supporting the independence of his daughter’s governess-cum-pickpocket. He’s a doting father, but his love for her is shrouded in guilt and fights for supremacy against his obsession and the fear that her mentalism will uncover terrible secrets. And though called a detective, Simon isn’t really; the investigators he works with are much more competent (something he freely acknowledges) and FAR more even-tempered, as he’s impulsive and has a hair-trigger temper and a propensity for beatdowns. His mental shields, social standing, and more questionable contacts are pretty much the only things he brings to the investigative table, so he is more a tool for the police. In a world where Sherlock Holmes exists as the most brilliant (and hubristic) mind around, the hows and whys for his lack of involvement in the Ripper case and the stark contrast in Simon’s abilities and struggles is compelling to follow.
The world building is also very well done, as it channels the Victorian preoccupation with spirituality and mentalism into its world and social structure seamlessly. How psychic powers factor into the era’s Imperialism, classism, and social growing pains feels true to the time period and believable. The advent of psionic powers is only about two decades old, originally relying on a technology called Lytton Rods for people with psi abilities to be able to tap into them and less than a decade since people learned how to use them without the rods, so society is still adjusting, resulting in those in power deeming physical abilities as coarse and for the working class and attempting to inhibit the lower classes from training and mastering mental abilities, which adds another layer to the course of events. This social unease is also a part of Simon’s position as an amateur working with Scotland Yard and the clout he has within the peerage and commoners alike, as not only are people struggling with how to handle psychic crimes, but new to the form of policing that is common today as well.
While there are some hiccups here and there in terms of some elements of the world and technology and places where the editing could have been a bit tighter, especially in some of the POV switches, overall Questionable Minds is an entertaining read.