The Hanged Man
(Her Majesty’s Psychic Service)
by P.N. Elrod
On a freezing Christmas Eve in 1879, a forensic psychic reader is summoned from her Baker Street lodgings to the scene of a questionable death. Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury (named after her godmother, the current Queen of England) is adamant that the death in question is a magically compromised murder and not a suicide, as the police had assumed, after the shocking revelation contained by the body in question, Alex must put her personal loss aside to uncover the deeper issues at stake, before more bodies turn up.
Turning to some choice allies—the handsome, prescient Lieutenant Brooks, the brilliant, enigmatic Lord Desmond, and her rapscallion cousin James—Alex will have to marshal all of her magical and mental acumen to save Queen and Country from a shadowy threat. Our singular heroine is caught up in this rousing gaslamp adventure of cloaked assassins, meddlesome family, and dark magic.
The Hanged Man is a mash up of genres – mystery, historical fiction, paranormal, romance, a touch of steampunk – that blend together into an adventurous murder mystery.
The prologue grounds us in Victorian England; however, not the Victorian England we know from history books. The Queen married a peer, not Albert, and instituted progressive policies such as granting the women’s vote. She also created Her Majesty’s Psychic Service to employ psychical gifts to protect the realm from supernatural threats. This alternative history sets up the premise – the existence of a psychic reader who works for the crown and with the police – while also creating new tensions between genders. Some men don’t appreciate the Queen’s equality bill.
The paranormal element is interesting. Our protagonist Alexandrina “Alex” Pendlebury is a psychic reader who can detect emotional residue from environments. This comes in handy shortly after a murder, for example. Her new driver, Lieutenant Brooks, is new to the Service and his power of prescience. There is also a Seer who delightfully helps as she appears to hinder. The back half of the novel introduces some other supernatural elements which will certainly come into play in future installments.
The romance has a light touch, which I appreciated. It is obvious that Lieutenant Brooks thinks very highly of Alex and since she can pick up on emotions around her, this is a bit disconcerting. As it’s not a full-on romance novel, this element of the story is a low-burning subplot that hints at more by the end. Their relationship was professional even as I wished for more because Alex is slowly finding a way to open up. Her psychical gift makes it difficult to be around people without a mental wall in place to hold back their emotions and that helpful mental wall is also a barrier.
I hope to see more steampunk elements in future books. The main one that appears is an air gun that sounds absolutely terrifying due to its silence. Again, there are third act surprises I won’t write about which are more in the steampunk vein but it’s all deftly handed and peripheral to the ultimate story which is the mystery.
Elrod juggles the multiple mysteries in The Hanged Man well. There is the initial case that Alex goes to read and learns is her father who she hasn’t seen in ten years. (Mysteries 1 and 2 – who killed her father and why didn’t he contact her to let her know he was back in town?) Then men with air guns show up and start shooting – mystery number 3. I won’t go any higher or risk spoiling the entire fun of the book. Needless to say, the mysteries build – one even becomes a conspiracy – and nicely resolved by the end.
Alex Pendlebury is a clever woman who is compelled to see things through. Her father’s death is the instigating force in this novel and I look forward to seeing what compels her in the next.