Sherlock Holmes’ creator and a crusading British journalist team up to hunt for Jack the Ripper.
In September 1888, no less a personage than Prime Minister William Gladstone writes to young doctor and author Arthur Conan Doyle with a vague entreaty to save “many lives.” Not surprisingly, Doyle’s first-person narrative is reminiscent of Holmes-ian amanuensis Dr. Watson. When Doyle meets Gladstone’s personal secretary, Jonathan Wilkins, he’s surprised to learn that this is not a medical matter but a criminal one. Impressed by the astuteness of Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Gladstone would like him to investigate the Whitechapel homicides, searching for the killer Scotland Yard calls “Leather Apron.” Wilkins puts Doyle in touch with “one of the new breed of ‘emancipated women,’ ” crusading journalist Margaret Harkness, who’ll be his guide through the dangerous streets of Whitechapel. (Under the pen name John Law, Harkness was a real-life radical writer.) As in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a leading feature is the vivid, thorough questioning of a colorful cross-section of Londoners, here including brash Cockney boy John Richardson, inept but loquacious Dr. Llewellyn, and beat policeman Sgt. Thicke, known on the street as “Johnny Upright.” Oscar Wilde also makes a cameo appearance. At length Doyle does indeed stir the interest of the serial killer who calls himself Jack the Ripper, and he and Margaret get close enough to him to rescue an intended victim.
Delightful chemistry, plummy prose, and believable period detail lift Harper’s debut above the throng of forgettable Baker Street imitators.