Sunday, February 23, 2014


Even though my main sources of entertainment these days tend to be television and old comic books, I still find time for the occasional prose novel here and there if it tickles my fancy. And watching all those episodes of SHERLOCK recently got me in the mood to read some Sherlock Holmes. I've read all the original Doyle works before, though I would have no problem checking most any of them out again -- but in the third season premiere of SHERLOCK, a reference was made to Jack the Ripper, and it got me wondering if anyone had ever produced a story in which Holmes attempted to solve the grisly Whitechapel murders.

So I Googled the matter and found that, sure enough, there have been a number of Holmes vs. Jack stories over the years, both written and on film. The one work that really caught my attention was a novel titled DUST AND SHADOW: AN ACCOUNT OF THE RIPPER KILLINGS BY DR. JOHN H. WATSON. The book was written by Lyndsay Faye, and every review I saw said that she captured the spirit and voice of the original Doyle works near perfectly. I downloaded the first chapter to my Kindle app and was hooked immediately, so I quickly went ahead and purchased the full book.

Be Warned: Some minor spoilers follow from this point.

I've never really read any Holmes pistaches before. I figured they had to be inferior to the original Doyle material. But if anything else out there is like Faye's book, I may have to rethink my position. True to the reviews I saw, this book reads exactly like a Doyle story, to the point that more than once while reading it, I forgot that it was written in 2009 by a different person! Her Holmes and Watson are perfectly in character, her depiction of London in 1888 reads as if she had grown up there, and her story moves along at a brisk pace, with short chapters and a succinct narrative that never dwells too long anywhere -- precisely like the Doyle stories she emulates.

Looking up facts about the Ripper case online as I read the book, I learned that while there were several murders attributed to the killer, only five are considered to definitively be his work. Faye sticks with these five to form her Ripper's body of work, but also uses one of the others in a unique way to add to the story. She also definitively incorporates the majority of the circumstatial evidence, whether disputed or not, into her story. Her skill is evident in the way she joins these threads together, using them as jigsaw puzzle pieces to form a cohesive story which makes sense and stands up to scrutiny.

Certainly the Ripper murders have been studied for over a century by scholars and amateurs alike, so perhaps Faye's version of the case is not original -- I wouldn't know -- but her inclulsion of Holmes, Watson, and their Scotland Yard ally, Inspector Lestrade, into the proceedings takes the story in a definitively different direction. For a single example among several, in this story it is Holmes who inspires the creation of the real-life Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, following a meeting with George Lusk, an actual historical figure.

The greater intrusion of fiction into the world of fact comes when Holmes and Watson interrupt the Ripper following a murder, but before he can peform his trademark disembowelment. It is strongly believed that the Ripper was, in fact, interrupted in the midst of one killing. Using Holmes as the source of that interruption is at once a brilliant and completely natural idea. The fact that Holmes is wounded in the ensuing conflict -- and remains so for the rest of the book -- adds extra importance to both sides of the story.

Besides giving her rendition of the Ripper killings, Faye also introduces the character of Dr. Moore Agar to Holmes and Watson. Agar featured in "The Devil's Foot", one of Doyle's original stories, in which Watson hints at a dramatic introduction between Holmes and the doctor. Taking it upon herself to provide that introduction, Faye lives up to Watson's suggestion, as the doctor patches Holmes up following his encounter with the Ripper, while Watson is otherwise unavailable. Agar goes on to play a role later in the book, as well.

Of course Faye populates the story with some of her own characters as well, most notably Mary Ann Monk, an East End prostitue who joins Holmes and Watson in their investigation after her friend becomes one of the Ripper's victims. Given the paucity of strong female leads in the Holmes canon, Miss Monk could very easily have become a "Mary Sue" character, dominating the story and showing up both Holmes and Watson. But Faye is careful not to do this with her, and while she remains spunky and competent, she never overshadows the story's protagonists with her own exploits.

I will admit that the story's finale is not quite what I had hoped for. It's exciting, certainly, but the Ripper, when revealed, seems to have no motive for his killings. Perhaps that's the point; it would, after all, require an extreme lack of sanity to do the sort of stomach-turning things the real-life Ripper did, but in a work of fiction, you expect something more. I wouldn't want him to be a criminal mastermind or an agent of Professor Moriarty or something, but a bit more motive beyond "I did because I could" would've been nice.

That said, even if the ending is just a tiny bit of a let-down, it doesn't take away from the journey. This book is fast-paced, engrossing, and thoroughly enjoyable. I recommend it to anyone who considers themselves a fan, even a casual one, of Sherlock Holmes.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go learn about, and possibly eventually read, two more pistaches I recently discovered -- SHERLOCK HOLMES VS. DRACULA and DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HOLMES.

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