After a seven-year hiatus, fictional editor Fiona Witherspoon at last presents the return of sleuth extraordinaire Irene Adler (Irene’s Last Waltz, 1994, etc.). This fifth adventure of Sherlock Holmes’s brash female rival sends her deep into a noirish Paris underground as the new Eiffel Tower soars high during its debut in spring 1889 at l’Exposition Universelle. While the world above celebrates humanity’s technological advances, a series of savage, Ripper-like mutilations await the women of Paris below. Always a step behind Irene and her prudish companion/amanuensis Nell Huxleigh, Holmes tracks the women through catacomb, sewer, and Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, revealing a knotty case of gender hatred and divided identity that, Irene claims, pushes him beyond his element. Always a step ahead, the reader is privy to the secret journal of the mastermind plotting a dastardly political use for a primitive killer. Meantime, the more appealing man in Adler’s life, her barrister husband, Godfrey Norton, disappears in Transylvania, playing Jonathan Harker to the toothy “provincial satrap” he’s seeking, and her sidekick Nell—proud as ever to be an ignorant Victorian female—falls prey to vampiric forces she little understands.
The episode of Prince Albert at the Wild West Show probably isn’t necessary to flavor this hearty stew. But somehow Irene’s saga doesn’t implode into a morass of historical data, Ripper lore, and exposition tours. Douglas cleverly balances tragedy and farce in a gentle mockery of period adventure and a ruthless depiction of all-too-contemporary hatreds.