Some ideas in fiction feel like no-brainers: alternate perspectives on classics (Wicked), skewing romanticised views of history (Flashman) and what happens to divine beings after their civilizations fall (American Gods). Another of these is pairing up two icons of the Victorian era: #Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. Literature's greatest detective on the trail of one of history's greatest and most enigmatic serial killers just feels like a natural feet for a page turner, and there have been no shortage of takes, spanning novels, films and video games.
Journalist and television scribe Edward B. Hanna delved into the infamous Whitechapel murders back in 1993, reprinted by Titan for their Holmes range, for a mystery that weaves fact and fiction as he tries to unmask Jack's identity, and finds several answers that he and Watson may not like...
While professional, 'Whitechapel' never quite hits the mark
Off the bat, it's lacking the regular Conan Doyle flavour as the book is not told from Watson's perspective, but rather in the third person, derived from Watson's notes. Not necessarily a bad thing, as Hanna does provide an explanation in a prologue that establishes why this is an off the record case, but the first person element gave the Doyle stories a greater immediacy, allowing you to really feel like you could be there, as well give Watson greater character. Without it, the story just feels off, and the prologue itself doesn't have much to resolution once everything is said and done.
Hanna tries to compensate with an incredible amount of historical detail and references concerning London of that era, and succeeds at putting you in the midst of a terrified city. It's easily the book's strongest point, as are the atmospheric sequences where Holmes marauds through Whitechapel in the darkness and the fog, hunting for Jack. Hanna's experience as a writer shines here as he has quite a visual eye, alternating between eerily Gothic and queasily detailed on the crimes and the surrounding poverty.
More cons than pros in this case
At 480 pages, 'Whitechapel' is too long, and not dramatic enough to warrant the length. Those hoping for a intense game of wits between Holmes and the Ripper will be quite let down, as the book not only barely uses the Ripper as a character in their own right, but the story takes one of the most overused theories when it comes to the Ripper's identity, meaning that after the first 100 pages, you can guess where it's heading (well, most of it). In addition, Hanna gives himself more work by also tying it into the event of 'Baskervilles', which detracts from the immediate story and doesn't feel like it gels with any thematic ideas concerning how Jack changed Victorian society. It's just purely continuity fanservice.
Furthermore, and I won't spoil it, but the book's ending tries to completely wrongfoot the audience, after having gone down the obvious route. The contrivances here not only makes Holmes feel less intelligent, but it leaves one without a sense of catharsis. If this was an attempt at apologizing for the choice of your Ripper theory, or trying to be poignant, it backfired. There are other small issues, like the constant separation of Holmes and Watson, or the obnoxious Cockney dialogue, but these are more elements you become used to as you read.
So, where does this leave Hanna's book?
Hanna's descriptive talent, a solid opening (past the somewhat pointless prologue) and some great eerie ambiance that earns its Gothic stripes in the tradition of Hammer are quite admirable, and in a shorter story, would be enough to gloss over the faults. However, as a longer Holmes mystery, it falls short, with some poor structure and a baffling conclusion that tries to be, ironically, the 'Jack' of all these Ripper tales. I only recommend 'The Whitechapel Horrors' for diehard fans who want to round out their literary collections, but there are other, leaner ways to get your fill of Sherlock vs Jack. #Books