John Katzenbach

"The Madman's Tale"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple JUL 24, 2004)

"The hospital was about keeping you out of the sane world's eyes. We were all bound by medications that dulled the senses, stymied the voices, but never did completely away with anything hallucinatory, so that vibrant delusions still echoed and resounded throughout the corridors. But what was truly evil about our lives was how quickly we all came to accept those delusions."

A most unusual "detective story," The Madman's Tale spools out from the memory of Francis X. Petrel, a delusional man in his 40s and former mental patient at Western State Hospital, now closed. Francis, who is still tormented by voices and visions, despite his medications and years of treatment, has been invited back to the hospital for a day long seminar on the history of the hospital, before the land is turned into condos and luxury homes. Known at the hospital as "C-Bird," because of his last name, Francis returns for the "reunion" and reconnects with Napoleon, another former inmate, who urges Francis to write about a series of murders that happened when they were both confined there twenty years ago.

Francis, who played an important role in the investigation of the murders at the time, is not sure he can do this. "The trouble with being mad," he says, "was that it was real hard to tell what was true and what wasn't. That doesn't change, just because we can take enough pills to scrape along now in the world with all the others." Nevertheless, when he returns home, he discovers that the visit has "startled emotions within [him]," and he is anxious to begin writing. Lacking paper, he picks up his pencil, stands on a chair, and begins to cover the white walls of his apartment with the story that becomes this novel.

Author Katzenbach is convincing in his portrayal of Francis, both as the barely functioning 41-year-old narrator whose mental illness is kept only partially controlled by medications, and as a 21-year-old, who, though mad, is not nearly as mad as many others in the hospital. Lonely, isolated, and written off by his parents, Francis is terrified when he is first committed, refusing to admit to authorities that he hears voices because he likes them—they keep him company and make him less lonely. His only real friend is The Fireman, sent to the hospital for evaluation before his upcoming trial, a former arson investigator who has burned down a church with a pedophile priest inside.

When a nurse trainee, nicknamed Short Blond, is found gruesomely murdered shortly after Francis's arrival, a young prosecutor from Boston, Lucy Kyoto Jones, who was herself once the victim of a vicious crime, arrives at the hospital to investigate. Since she has no staff with her, she asks for help, and Fireman, believing his investigational skills would be useful, volunteers. Francis, who, with Fireman, found the body, also agrees to help.

Soon two more murders, not regarded by the hospital administrators as murders at all, occur to people near Francis and the Fireman, but they and Lucy make scant progress in their investigations and get only minimal and reluctant cooperation from the hospital administration. As the investigation stalls, Fireman notes, "This place is mad…what we need is an investigation that reflects the world here. One that fits. Tailor what we do to the place we're in. When in Rome, so to speak." When Lucy deliberately injects some chaos into the investigation, matters soon come to a head, not only in terms of the investigation but also in terms of the mental stability of her helpers.

Katzenbach brings the madness of the hospital to life, while at the same time, creating an enormously powerful and affecting portrait of the lives of the mentally ill, taking us inside the mind of Francis, both as a young man dealing with the system, and as an older man who is, with medications, barely functioning in the outside world. Francis's comments on medications and what they do to him are eye-opening and very specific, but his refusal to take them leaves him vulnerable to other problems at least as debilitating as the medications' side effects. As his story continues to unfold on the walls of his apartment, the reader hopes desperately that he will finish his story before the terrifying, satanic Angel he sees and the cacophony of voices he hears capture him and destroy him completely.

Though this is a most unusual murder mystery, it is the characters who take center stage—C-Bird and Fireman, who are terrific partners in investigation; Cleo, the immensely fat woman who regards herself as the Queen of Egypt; Lanky, who sees evil incarnate; Newsman, who communicates by reciting newspaper headlines; Big Black and his brother, Little Black, two orderlies who, in contrast to the staff, treat the patients as real people; and Lucy Kyoto Jones, who having survived mutilation herself, has special reasons for wanting to find the killer. The hospital staff, Dr. Gulptilil (Dr. Gulp-a-pill) and social worker, Mr. Evans (Mr. Evil) are stereotypes of unsympathetic administrators, creating for the reader an "us-against-them" dynamic which increases the reader's identification with the patients and makes him/her ever more anxious for their success.

The plot is often unrealistic. The idea that an investigator would allow a person awaiting trial for arson and a mental patient to participate in several murder investigations, that she would confide details of the investigations to these patients, and that she would allow a patient to be privy to the questioning of another patient strains credibility. It is also unlikely that a woman who has suffered a slashing would really set herself up as a decoy in order to capture someone who mutilated victims. Still, this reader "willingly suspended disbelief" because the characters are so well drawn and the sense of foreboding and of palpable evil are so strong. Katzenbach's vibrant dialogue, eye for detail, ability to describe the chaos of the hospital, and his unusual main character, Francis, who wanted "all [his] life…to be normal," stands the traditional detective story on its head and makes it work.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 64 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Madman's Tale at

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About the Author:

John KatzenbachJohn Katzenbach has been a criminal court reporter for The Miami Herald and Miami News and a featured writer for the Herald’s Tropic magazine. He lives in western Massachusetts. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014