Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson by Lyndsay Faye
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It is inevitable that writers feel a deep-seated urge to pit Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper. The murders happened in the midst of Holmes's career; his contemporary readership must have wished he could step out of the pages and hunt down their nightmare for them. So it's no surprise that this is not the first time the idea has been pursued; there have been a couple of films (Murder by Decree with Christopher Plummer and James Mason as Holmes and Watson, and A Study in Terror), a handful of other books (including Michael Dibdin's The Last Sherlock Holmes Story), and a video game. This was my first foray into the mashup.
Half an hour into the audiobook, I had small doubts. Holmes and Watson both faithfully give their solemn word that they will never reveal the details of the case the story starts with … but the concept is that the book is one of Watson's memoirs (albeit one he leaves sealed). It seems a bit odd that he'd even write the story down. I wasn't fond of this beginning, this prologue, wondering why it was starting there, with such an extended look at another case … until nearly the very end, when the reason for starting there becomes clear and it all just adds to the brilliance of the book.
First of all, as I commented somewhere, if Simon Vance narrated all audiobooks I would never read another page for myself again. I love this performance – every character is dead on: Watson, warm and a little dusty; Holmes, the famous clear strong tenor; Miss Monk, believably feminine and East End without going falsetto Eloiza Doolittle. And the Welsh accents just made me happy. All the accents made me happy. The reading was a joy.
I loved the Doyle-esque "Several highly publicized investigations that year displayed Holmes's remarkable skills to the public, including the appalling affair of the faulty oil lamp, and the matter of Mrs. Victoria Mendoza's mysteriously vanishing thimble and its consequences." Shades of the Giant Rat of Sumatra … Although perhaps Ms. Faye can be prevailed upon to do what Doyle never did, and give us those stories. (Along with "the affair of the second cellist".) I live in hopes that this is only the first of a new Holmes series.
There was, it seems, an innocence that was lost when Jack the Ripper began his work. It's hard to fathom that before 1888 ordinary folk could not conceive of such atrocities – or at least this is the sentiment Lyndsay Faye puts into the mouths of the gentlemen set to pursue the monster, from Holmes to the lowliest constable. Now, with 24-hour news and CSI and Criminal Minds and true crime novels, it's sadly hard to conceive of such a sweet time. There had been serial killers before the Ripper, but through some confluence of the media and the infancy of modern investigative techniques he became the first one to cause such a tremendous flurry, the first one to make the history books.
It's been some time since I read the actual original stories, but not so much time since I watched the wonderful current BBC series, and something that strikes me throughout Dust and Shadow is that this Holmes is much nicer than Benedict Cumberbatch's. He is much freer in his friendship with Watson than I was expecting – this Holmes is less "sociopathic genius with absolutely no social skills" than "so much smarter than everyone else there's no point in talking to them, with the exception of Watson". He placates Mrs. Hudson and pours tea for his friend and everything.
And this pastiche makes me want to go back and read all of the original work soon (had I world enough, and time). The characterizations of Holmes and Watson, and also LeStrade, are so engaging that part of me wants to hold them up against the originals. The tone of the writing feels very genuinely Watsonian. (Quotes are a right pain to make note of in the audio format – I usually hear lines I wish I could make note of while driving – but there have been several descriptive flourishes which made me smile at their Victorian purple tinge. Ah, there's one: "shafts of lunar illumination": beautiful) This is a Watson I want on my side, a Watson I want more of, staunch and solid and not remotely stupid. I love this Watson.
And I love this Holmes. A great deal of it is, of course, the really gorgeous tone of the narrator – his Holmes just rings out, clarion. But this is a Holmes that fits the template in my head: he feels right. This is one of the reasons I keep reading fan-fiction and pastiche and media tie-ins despite all the garbage that brings: when it's bad it's unconscionable, but when it's good – when the writer captures the voice of a well-known and well-loved character - it's so very much fun.
I also enjoyed the new part-time member of the team, Miss Mary Ann Monk. She's thisclose to being a cliché – but Lyndsay Faye pulls off a young woman toward whom it seems Watson and Holmes both harbor fondness, and indeed admiration – and I don't mind. Non-canon romance, liaisons outside of the bounds of the Official Story, is usually something that raises my hackles, but I found myself mentally nudging one or the other of the duo her way.
I think the only fault I can possibly find is that there's not enough Mrs. Hudson. I can live with it. And honestly, the use of Mrs. Hudson – particularly at the end – was wonderful. So … not a fault, after all.
There is a comeuppance that is received a good ways into the book which was one of the most satisfying examples of just deserts ever. And the final confrontation hit all the right notes. And that's all I'll say about that.
Being me, I looked up Ripper history. Lyndsay Faye was completely faithful to it up to the point of Holmes's growing involvement, and in fact wove him into the reality with enviable skill. And part of the brilliance of this book is the life breathed into a one hundred and twenty-four year old story: new suspense is added with the question of how it would play out. Would Holmes manage to save any of the victims? How would his involvement affect the sequence of events? Would the inconclusive end – the Ripper kills just ending with no real explanation – be worked into the tale? I can't really answer the questions without massive spoilers, so instead I will say simply this:
View all my reviews