Dust and Shadow – Jack the Ripper v Sherlock Holmes

29 January 2012

Haha, you thought I’d forget that Sunday is now Book Review Day but you were WRONG.

Thanks to the brilliant BBC series Sherlock and the Guy Ritchie films, there’s been a bit of a resurgence of interest in Sherlock Holmes lately and RIGHTLY SO because, let’s face it, Sherlock Holmes is brilliant and definitely the best Londoner, fictitious or otherwise, of all time.

I have read the original Conan Doyle stories several times since childhood and so have been feasting on more contemporary pastiches in recent weeks – namely Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk (which I won’t be reviewing here until Summer as I had to review it for somewhere else but suffice to say that I absolutely loved it) and Dust and Shadow by Lindsay Fay.

I wasn’t sure about reading Dust and Shadow to be honest as it is Yet Another Tussle between Sherlock and that other semi fictitious Victorian Londoner and dweller of gas lit foggy cobbled streets, Jack the Ripper which is fine if a bit done to death (Murder by Decree is the best in this genre) but I am writing my own take on the events of 1888 at the moment and have Rules about reading books set in the same period as the one I am writing about. I decided to ignore my misgivings though and give it a go, mainly because my own Ripper Book is absolutely NOT a whodunnit whereas Dust and Shadows plainly is.

Or is it?

The thing about Sherlock Holmes is that he speaks with such a marked, and easily sent up, idiom that you would think that writers would find it very easy to deliver a reasonable Holmes pastiche. Not so. The vast majority of attempts to replicate Sherlock Holmes are actually pretty ropey – either because they don’t try hard enough to capture the correct tone or, ironically, try far too hard. Horowitz manages it admirably in The House of Silk although at times I found his Holmes rather more reminiscent of the modern BBC version as played by Benedict Cumberbatch than the Conan Doyle original. Lindsay Fay’s attempt in Dust and Shadow isn’t quite so note perfect, but it is still pretty good.

I found the treatment of the Whitechapel murders interesting and suitably gruesome and the author had clearly done a lot of research. However, descriptions of the Whitechapel area itself didn’t always ring all that true to me but then if there is one place on earth (besides Revolutionary Paris) that I feel like I know intimately, it is 1888 Whitechapel so I think I’m probably quite hard to please in that respect!

There was the usual cast of Victorian miscreants, hapless street urchins, thugs and gin swilling tarts, which was great – my favourite character was the excellently feisty Miss Mary Ann Monk, who was a refreshing addition to the usual cast and brightened the book up no end whenever she made an appearance. I’d happily read a book just about her to be honest as I thought she made such a strong and intriguing character.

I’m usually pretty good at working out who the murderer is but I didn’t actually guess the Ripper’s identity until much the same time as Sherlock did, which was good as if there is one thing I hate, it is being a couple of steps ahead of Mr Holmes because, well, that’s just WRONG isn’t it? You’re supposed to have absolute faith in Sherlock Holmes’ sagacity and intellectual infallibility and that just isn’t possible if you’ve guessed the murderer four chapters before him.

In summary, this was a pretty good read if you’re in the market for a book about either Jack the Ripper or Sherlock Holmes or both and is perfect reading material for gloomy winter nights.

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