In Dennis Lehane’s creepy and suspenseful Shutter Island, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck arrive on Shutter Island to find a missing inmate from Ashecliffe Asylum. What seems like a routine investigation is swiftly put off the rails by the uneasy atmosphere at Ashecliffe, and all of the secrets the people in charge seem to be keeping. Teddy has his own demons to work though at the same time, having recently lost his wife.
I can’t believe I’m only getting to this novel now. I never saw the movie, either, so the ending remained unspoiled for me. I enjoyed the dark, film noir feel of this, with the tortured war veteran and his dark past, his solitary nature, his desire for revenge. He’s a great character, flawed yet remaining sympathetic.
The plotting of this novel is so intricate and so well-constructed. I can’t out-do the Kirkus reviewer on this one: it’s a “lollapalooza of a corkscrew thriller.” You start questioning your own sanity by midway through, and I mean that in the best possible way. The twist is revealed in one of the best scenes I’ve read lately, where the stakes are high for everyone involved and the emotion of it all seems very real.
The setting is fantastic, both gritty and Gothic, perfect for the story. Ashecliffe is depicted as a brutal relic from another century, and its maximum security isolation on an island is perfect.
Lots of diverse readalikes present themselves for this one, depending on what you enjoyed the most. Noir and crime fiction from the 1950’s might really appeal to you, if you liked that aspect of the story. The grittier the better. There’s also something very Gothic about the creepy atmosphere and sense of danger at the asylum. You might enjoy John Harwood’s The Asylum (I talked about it here). I also thought of The Boy Who Could See Demons while reading this, which you can read more about at this post.
If you want just a smidge more of the Nazi subplot, some aliens, and a ton of Sarah Paulsen, you might want to check out the second season of American Horror Story, which took place at an insane asylum in Massachusetts. Here, I can show this clip on a family-friendly blog (trust me, the entire season is just as nuts as this, but in different ways).
I cannot give you a better teaser of a summary for The Asylum than the one provided on the dust jacket, so here it is:
Confused and disoriented, Georgina Ferrars awakens in a small room in Tregannon House, a private asylum in a remote corner of England. She has no memory of the past few weeks. The doctor, Maynard Straker, tells her that she admitted herself under the name Lucy Ashton the day before, then suffered a seizure. When she insists he has mistaken her for someone else, Dr. Straker sends a telegram to her uncle, who replies that Georgina Ferrars is at home with him in London: “Your patient must be an imposter.”
From there we are with Georgina (or the woman who believes she is Georgina), as she attempts to make sense of her situation. We share her confusion and fear, as well as the desire to know the truth about her circumstances and identity. Discovering the truth, we soon come to realize, hinges upon finding a writing box, a series of letters, and a brooch. I don’t want to give too much away, as uncovering the many intricate plot points are most of the fun of reading this novel. Suffice it to say that letters are found, secrets are uncovered, and the ending, while not shocking, is certainly a surprise!
If this all sounds like something straight from the pages of a dark, Gothic, melodramatic Victorian thriller, that’s because it is. More or less. As I discussed in my gushing review of Harwood’s other novel, The Seance, the mood Harwood creates is perfect. The sense of time and place is superb, and Harwood really excels at writing in the style of a late Victorian novelist without it coming across as parody or over-the-top. Not only are you absorbed into the textured world of late 19th century London and the cold, dreary asylum in Cornwall, you also get the sense that you are truly reading a story of the period.
There are striking similarities between Asylum and Sarah Waters’ novels Affinity and Fingersmith. I’d suggest either of those books if you enjoyed Asylum. They share the same style, atmosphere, and Gothic tone, as well as strong female protagonists. In fact, the plot is almost identical to Fingersmith in a few places, though the resolution is quite different. For a more modern Gothic novel, with the same sense of mystery and secrets, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale might be a good choice.
If you like twists and turns but aren’t into the Victorian setting and atmosphere, try Gone Girl or Dark Places by Gillian Flynn for modern thrillers that boast great twists, plenty of dark secrets, and loads of suspense. Her books are darker, more intense, and at times more violent, but still work as read-alikes, I think.