Friday, December 30, 2011

Dust and Shadow

I finished reading Lyndsay Faye's book Dust and Shadow, about Holmes investigating the Jack the Ripper murders. I'd heard so much praise about it that I decided to read it, even though it contained no slash.

Some spoilers below.

It is a classic pastiche, presented as a manuscript that Watson hid away, unable to be published in his lifetime. But he had to write it down for himself because it was such a traumatic case for both of them. I like that Faye begins Chapter One by addressing Sherlockians; Watson explains that his problems in chronology were deliberate, not errors. So it seems she agrees with me that Watson lies. However, since the Ripper murders are so famous, there's no point in Watson attempting to disguise the dates.

The book is full of historical detail about the Whitechapel slums, which contrasts with the normally cozy atmosphere of Baker Street. Even before the murders start, the Ripper sends Holmes a threatening letter in the prologue, but they only connect it later once they take up the Ripper case.

Holmes hires a friend of one of the victims to be his Whitechapel informant; her name is Mary Ann Monk, and she has lots of personality without being anachronistic. Maybe like a less vengeful Kitty Winter. Lestrade is on the case, one of the Irregulars discovers a body, and we unexpectedly meet Dr. Moore Agar, whom Watson mentioned as prescribing Holmes's rest in the "Devil's Foot" adventure. It was nice to see these characters, as well as some subtle teasing about other popular Ripper theories, such as the Royal conspiracy theory shown in the From Hell movie and the Holmes vs. Ripper movie Murder By Decree.

As Holmes investigates, the physical evidence is minimally helpful, and he can find no connection between the victims. Miss Monk also attracts the attentions of a suspicious man named Stephen Dunlevy who claims he knows who the Ripper is, but can't find him. Holmes even gets injured one night, and even his brother comes to check on him. Just like the real police were criticized for failing to solve the case, Holmes comes under fire for not catching the Ripper. Suspicion is even thrown on him by a mean-spirited journalist trying to sell newspapers. So now Holmes has to investigate in disguise to avoid being arrested or lynched by the Whitechapel locals. Drawing on historical examples of serial killings, Holmes consults with Dr. Agar about the Ripper's psychology, asking if he could be insane and yet able to act like a normal person and fool other people.

Watson performs admirably in the book, and is not made to fall in love with Miss Monk, thankfully. There is one scene where Holmes and Watson stay overnight at one of Holmes's refuges (secret lairs where he keeps disguises and sometimes lives while undercover). Watson has described the room as having one straw mattress and barely any chairs. Holmes lies down on the mattress and says goodnight to Watson, not even offering one of his many blankets to him. He only warns Watson not to sleep at a certain corner of the room that is unstable. Watson never describes whether he sleeps in the chair, on the floor, etc. Very weird, though I don't suppose the author intended a slashy moment there.

Eventually Holmes discovers the Ripper's identity and has to convince the police to help him set a trap for him. This leads to much danger and action in the climax, and we learn why the Ripper case has to remain unsolved to the public. In the aftermath, Holmes refuses a knighthood. I think Faye made a misstep when she had Lestrade being all cheery to Holmes in the end, and them going out almost jauntily. It should have been more melancholy and traumatized, I think.

While the book was well-written and engrossing, I felt it dragged at some points, especially when Holmes had no forensic evidence to go on. He finally gets the grapes lead at one crime scene, but too often we just had Holmes feeling frustrated by his dead ends. I also was not impressed with the identity of Jack the Ripper, because although you get hints beforehand that Jack knows about Holmes and is trying to attack him, I still don't see why he began killing in the first place and then progressively went through more mutilations. I mean, what is the relation between jealousy of Holmes and killing the whores? After making a point about the psychology, we don't get any payoff about Jack when he is discovered. We get a suggestion that he was abused and that he kept maiming a cat in his youth. Plus his mother was crazy and blind. But there's nothing that explains why Jack didn't resort to murder before, and if the mutilations had anything to do with revenge upon his mother, or whatever.

My dissatisfaction is similar to my dissatisfaction at the end of Caleb Carr's The Alienist. Given that Carr is one of the blurb quotes praising the book, maybe I should have expected to be disappointed.

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