Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
As England’s greatest specialist in criminal detection, Sherlock Holmes is unwavering in his quest to capture the killer responsible for terrifying London’s East End. He hires an “unfortunate” known as Mary Ann Monk, the friend of a fellow streetwalker who was one of the Ripper’s earliest victims; and he relies heavily on the steadfast and devoted Dr. John H. Watson. When Holmes himself is wounded in Whitechapel during an attempt to catch the savage monster, the popular press launches an investigation of its own, questioning the great detective’s role in the very crimes he is so fervently struggling to prevent. Stripped of his credibility, Holmes is left with no choice but to break every rule in the desperate race to find the madman known as “the Knife” before it is too late.
I really loved Jane Steele when I read it over summer and I immediately hopped onto the internet after finishing it to buy something else by Lyndsay Faye. Not wanting to leap straight into a series, I plumped for this standalone, which also happens to by Faye’s debut. The idea also seemed right up my street – a take on Sherlock Holmes that sees the detective and Dr Watson take on the case of Jack the Ripper. There’s something about Jack the Ripper’s crimes that I find morbidly fascinating, which is odd for someone as averse to horror as I usually am! I don’t know if it’s because the culprit was never really found and there’s a legal conundrum feel to it or if it’s just because the crimes were so distinctly horrific. I’m also a big Sherlock Holmes fan so, after thinking that maybe Lyndsay Faye’s writing was worth trusting, I really wanted to read this book.
One obvious potential for downfall that I had reservations about the whole way through was how the story was going to wrap up. Given that it is in part based on historical fact and Jack the Ripper was never officially identified, I was worried that either the story wouldn’t resolve properly (and then wouldn’t fit with the picture of the Sherlock Holmes that we all know and love) or that it would resolve too well (and then wouldn’t fit with history). If you do pick this up, worry not! The novel blends the elements of truth seamlessly with the elements of fiction, filling in the gaps in the “story” of Jack the Ripper in a way that makes so much sense, it was tricky to work out what was real and what wasn’t! The ending is absolutely spot on and I actually went to the trouble of explaining just why it was so perfect to my non-reader (and non-interested!) boyfriend. I wish there was a TV/film adaptation.
There are plenty of takes on Sherlock Holmes out there and although I’m a complete sucker for them, I know that there may well be potential readers out there wondering why on earth they should bother with yet another one. I’ve read a few authors’ takes on the classics and this is easily and definitely the best. If you have been burnt by some less-than-faithful works in the past, please suspend your scepticism and read this one. The tone of Dr Watson’s narrative, the dialogue and the humour, the Victorian atmosphere and the mystique of the popular detective are all much more faithfully recreated than in any of the other modern versions that I’ve read. Maybe because the facts of the case are also accurately Victorian and have a very…well, to be honest medieval feel to them but obviously that’s inaccurate so I’ll go with “old-fashioned” or something of that ilk.
It’s bloody good is what I’m saying (pun not intended but appropriate enough that it can stay). I don’t have any complaints but I personally don’t feel as though a book that relies so heavily on an established set of characters and established writing style can have five stars (even where the rendering of those characters is as good as this is). If you like Sherlock Holmes, I can’t see how you could fail to like this.
Overall: This book is a perfect autumn/winter read – it’s oppressive and full of darkness and tension (and yes, fog!). It’s not cosy or comforting, obviously, but it is a genuinely gripping story that will help you wile away some of the gloomier evenings. If Faye had written any more takes on Holmes, I’d read them without hesitation. As it is, I’ll take this one shining example of historical mystery done well and count myself lucky. Now on to her other books…