A novel offers a new perspective on one of history’s most notorious figures.
This 19th-century tale starts innocently enough with two Malay boys, lonely rich kid Maurice and Mawken, the poor local boy he befriends. At first, Maurice educates the illiterate Mawken, who in turn gives him advice. But as Maurice grows up, he yearns to strike out on his own and to leave Mawken behind. Before that can happen, the two end up on the run after the mysterious murders of their parents, supposedly by pirates and witnessed only by Mawken. The two find work on a cargo ship, with Maurice as a cook and Mawken as a crew member. Partway through the journey, Maurice witnesses Mawken kill the ship’s brutal captain, but he stupidly picks up the murder weapon and is blamed for the crime by his fellow crewmates. Luckily, a storm severely damages the ship and Maurice is briefly free of his past. Then Mawken shows up again, and death follows him, with the kindly but weak-willed Maurice unable to escape his dangerous friend: “There was no question or indication I had any recourse but to follow his plan. It was as if he made the decisions and I meekly followed.” Maurice is the unfortunate observer of a series of gruesome murders of women, first in Austin, Texas, and later in the slums of London, which leads to the Jack the Ripper mythos. The strength of Lee’s (Aquasaurus, 2016, etc.) intriguing second novel is the well-researched, vivid passages describing life aboard a cargo ship and in 19th-century Austin and London. The narrative moves along swimmingly in those parts. But the author tips his twist ending way too soon. In addition, anyone who gets close to Maurice tends to disappear quickly, sometimes permanently, while Mawken prefers to stay in the shadows (“I am not seen if I don’t want to be seen”). This means there isn’t much of a cast to experience other than the two polar-opposite main characters. The key question that remains is how long will it take Maurice to realize what readers already have.
A promising thriller about a famous serial killer in which the suspense prematurely dissipates.