Tuesday, August 27, 2013

APOP - "The Whitechapel Horrors"

Sometimes when it comes to Sherlock Holmes Vs. Jack the Ripper novels, it feels like - "Excuse me [insert author's name here], 1965 called. They want their idea back." (P.S. 1965 was the release of "A Study in Terror" the first movie to feature the detective matching wits against the infamous killer). It's imperative then that if the idea is to be brought up again, something fresh and new must be done - perhaps not as fresh and new as "The Last Sherlock Holmes Story" by Michael Dibdin, but new all the same. That's why Edward B. Hanna's "The Whitechapel Horrors" makes it onto the list of Perfect Sherlock Holmes stories.

Hanna, who sadly died in 2000, was obviously a Sherlock Holmes aficionado. This novel opens each chapter with a quote from one of Doyle's stories, which usually references something in the forthcoming pages. What's more, "The Whitechapel Horrors" can perhaps be viewed as the definitive work on the subject. My copy of the book is 440 pages in length. It's a tremendously-researched book, giving you not only the details of the Ripper killings in the Autumn of 1888, but it manages to paint a picture of the era as a whole. It's the better that Holmes and Watson are wonderfully represented through Hanna's writing. Their voices are spot on, as are the mannerisms. There is a passage which descries Holmes languidly seated in a chair, minutely examining his fingernails - something which conjures up an image of Jeremy Brett right away, at least for me.

As I wrote above, Hanna's pastiche is very different than most. Aside from the fact that it is massive, Hanna curiously departs from the usual standard of pastiche story-telling. The book is told from a third-person perspective, and in the author's fictitious forward writes that the novel is a reconstruction of Dr. Watson's notes on the case. This does beg the question - why wouldn't Hanna simply write as Dr. Watson? Was he worried he could not do the authentic Doylean voice justice? If he was, I for one believe it would have been fine. Despite the fact that Dr. Watson is not present for a short part of the story, couldn't those passages have been relayed to the doctor in flashback by Holmes? Oh no - rhetorical questions - the scourge of my existence. Moving on then...

(Mild Spoilers Ahead) By large, the most unusual departure from the norm on Hanna's part is to hold back the identity of the murderer. Following the second Ripper killing, Holmes manages to identity a special brand of cigarette - smoked by only a select few. Through the usual process of deductions, Holmes manages to create a working hypothesis of who the Ripper is - but he never bothers to share his thoughts with Dr. Watson and in turn the reader. This can be viewed as an interesting diversion (like myself) or something which can infuriate you. If you view the latter way, I can understand. After reading the book, devoting 400 pages to this novel instead of another, and you're cheated out of knowing the murderer's identity, I can see why you might be a bit cross. However, I find it an interesting diversion and leaves with you the impression that perhaps Jack the Ripper's identity will never be known. (Spoilers Over)

As I mentioned above, the book is jam-packed with references to the canon, including various quotes. Minor characters from Doyle's works turn up - such a Shinwell Johnson, glimpsed only in "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client" and Hanna provides an interesting biography of the character. Interestingly, this would be Johnson's first appearance in a Sherlock Holmes story as "The Illustrious Client" was set in 1902. Also worthy of note, Watson is sidetracked for a portion of the novel in Dartmoor as he's been sent there by Holmes to work on the "Hound of the Baskervilles" case. This brings up a minor quibble - there's really no official date for "Hound," but I have always been of the mind that it took place in 1889, a year after the Ripper murders. Oh well. And finally - my last nitpick. Disguised as a thug in Whitechapel, Holmes actually says F@#! - something which shocked em to the core. Never would I imagine the usually gentlemanly detective using such words, even when in disguise and it certainly detracts just a bit from the impressively faithful characterizations elsewhere.

Overall however, those quibbles do not trouble me too much. "The Whitechapel Horrors" is one of the finest pastiches I've ever read. It's very original, distancing itself from other Holmes Vs. Jack the Ripper stories and is incredibly well researched. If I had to give it an official rating, I'd say 4.5 out of 5.

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