Canadian composer, performer, and now first-novelist MacLachlan attempts a penetrating look at man’s vile desires in a same-old serial killer tale, transported in time to 1852.
“It is impossible to overestimate how truly unbalanced London became during the Chokee Bill panic,” so why try? But that’s the question posed by this examination of press sensationalism, mid-19th-century-style. The murderer in question, already in custody, was nicknamed by London columnist Whitty, who, unlike his editors, at least has a soul: “When the racy ones come a cropper, what hope remains for the high-minded stuff?” But Whitty’s not so high-minded as to turn it down when Owler, a seller of crime stories, offers a partnership to interview Chokee Bill. And when the interview happens, might Whitty begin to wonder whether the right man is really in jail, and might Chokee Bill know who the real killer is, and might he help them find him, and might this all smack a little too much of similar tales already deeply lodged in the collective unconscious? No matter. Beneath the surface here is the suggestion that the lurid hunger of the modern imagination owes its craving to a time even more removed than Jack the Ripper. Whitty’s tour will take him through the bowels of a London on the brink of a sadistic modernity: seedy brothels, cellar mazes, the offices of unscrupulous editors, the parlors of women whose appetites are the invention of erotica, a Piccadilly that “churns in a grey whirlpool of hard-shelled beings like stones in a river, clattering across the cobbles,” and into subterranean chambers and passageways. But as exhaustive as all this is, one wonders whether Gray ever stopped to consider that his artifact wasn’t exactly the object he hoped to criticize: more than the murderer here, the media is the target, but it’s never clear that the project manages to escape the gravity of its own critical insight.
Smart, but echoing too familiarly.