Short Take: When it’s good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad…. Ugh.
There are certain words or phrases that give readers an instant reaction. As soon as we hear “throbbing manhood” or “disembowelment” or “moist” there’s a mental knee-jerk that happens, and it’s sometimes cool as all heck.
For me, “asylum” is one of those words, and when you toss “criminally insane” on top of it,… dude. I am SO IN. I’ve mentioned many, many times how much I love haunted house stories, and places like asylums and prisons have the potential to be haunted houses on a WAY bigger scale. And they don’t even need a supernatural aspect to be terrifying – living humans are quite capable of atrocities for any or no reason at all.
Which is to say that it doesn’t take much for me to start salivating when I hear the magic words mentioned above. I had read a few of Mr. Clegg’s works back in the day when ebooks were a new thing, and wondered what he had been up to, so obviously, a WHOLE TRILOGY featuring one of my favorite concepts should’ve been a slam dunk.
The Criminally Insane books (Bad Karma, Red Angel, and Night Cage) are tied together by the Darden State Hospital, where the worst of the worst sociopaths in California are housed, and by Trey Campbell, a lowly psych tech (NOT a psychiatrist), who works closely with them.
Although the books are a series, with a few supporting characters popping up in more than one, there’s no real overarching story or character arc. Trey is a bland sort of Everyman, with a wife and a couple of kids he loves and wants to protect. His job is managing sociopaths, and he does it well, with a level of detachment necessary to keep his own humanity, but enough insight to also have a deeper understanding of his patients.
There are many other available reviews and blurbs focusing on the plots of these stories, so I’m not going to take up valuable review space on those this time. Weighing in at nearly 900 pages, this collection gave me a lot of material to have opinions on, so I’m going to focus on what I think worked and didn’t work.
So, what worked really well? First off, the asylum itself. It’s a deliciously creepy setting, and its residents are so over-the-top evil that even the more outlandish plotlines still feel logical. To give an example, in Bad Karma, a crucial plot starter involves an employee who has fallen in love with one of the residents, and as someone who has fallen victim more than once to the “they’re not REALLY bad, they just need someone to understand them” school of romantic thought, it’s totally plausible.
But the author undercuts his own brilliant creation. Most of the action in the first two books doesn’t even take place in the asylum, and the fantastically shudder-inducing basement and tunnels below the place aren’t even mentioned until the third one. The series also suffers from a kind of wishy-washiness in that it hints of supernatural elements (reincarnation, mental telepathy) but never lands solidly on either side of “is this really happening, or is it this character’s imagination?”. I’ve read and reviewed other books with the same ambiguity, and I can’t exactly pinpoint why it works sometimes and not others, but it just kind of fizzles in this particular work.
Finally, the elephant in the room: the errors. Mr. Clegg has been writing for a long time, but reading Criminally Insane, you would not know it. The basic grammatical errors are ridiculous – dozens of your/you’re mix-ups, using apostrophes in plural words, missing or extra words. That’s enough to make me wonder what his editors were thinking, but when a character with his hands tied behind his back scratches his nose then chokes someone out, I question whether he even had an editor, or even any semi-competent beta readers.
It was, frankly, shocking to see in a work by an established author, and distracting, and frustrating in the way these things kept pulling me out of the stories. And that’s the most annoying part – the stories themselves were pretty good, especially Night Cage, but I just couldn’t enjoy them the way they deserved.
The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a big red pen. I’m twitching to use one right now.)