Jack the Ripper might have died a century or more ago, but that never-identified serial killer—who preyed on female prostitutes populating London’s down-at-heels Whitechapel district in 1888, and left Scotland Yard’s finest licking their wounded pride—has never seemed more alive than he does today. Indeed, just this month ABC-TV released a trailer for Time After Time, a coming drama series. Inspired by Karl Alexander’s 1975 science-fiction novel of the same name, it finds H.G. Wells, the prolific English author of such masterpieces as The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898), using his own time-traveling device to chase the Ripper to 21st-century New York City. (If that storyline sounds familiar, it’s because Alexander’s book was already adapted into the 1979 Malcolm McDowell/Mary Steenburgen film Time After Time). The potential for havoc is no less than historic.
Meanwhile, two new novels exploit the Ripper legend with stirring, sometimes frightening results. The first is Lost and Gone Forever, Kansas author Alex Grecian’s fifth historical thriller but the final entry in his “Ripper trilogy,” which began with The Devil’s Workshop (2014) and continued into last year’s The Harvest Man. If you haven’t read those, here’s Grecian’s essential premise: Saucy Jack’s butchery ended not because he died or fled the British capital, but because he was kidnapped from the scene of his last known crime by a clandestine society of police officials and other high-ranking vigilantes—the so-called Karstphanomen. They held Jack prisoner in an underground labyrinth and tortured him as retribution for his own barbarity, until he was finally helped to escape. Detective Walter Day of Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad (introduced in The Yard) knows the Ripper is at large once more and determines to capture him with the assistance of his trouble-prone associate, Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith, and forensic pathologist Dr. Bernard Kingsley. However, the murderer—who evolves through the course of these books from an unhinged figure of unalloyed malevolence into a seemingly intelligent but diabolical psychopath (think Hannibal Lecter in a frock coat and winged collar, and without the fava beans)—turns the tables on Day. He threatens to harm the detective’s wife and small children unless Day abandons them all to become Jack’s captive.
When we pick up the story in Lost and Gone Forever (a title I can’t write without thinking of the western folk ballad “Oh My Darling, Clementine”), it’s 1891, and Day suddenly finds himself released into the fog-bound wilds of London after a year spent in the Ripper’s clutches. Unfortunately, he’s nude and, as a result of Jack’s experimentations with hypnosis, has no memory of his old life, his old job, his loved ones. He winds up filching clothes and sleeping in a park, before gaining some funds by rolling and peddling “new” cigarettes crafted from tobacco left in discarded cigar and fag butts. Slowly Day cobbles together another lesser life for himself on the streets, his newfound fear of the police preventing him from seeking their aid to discern his true identity.
At the same time, Hammersmith—dismissed from the Yard for his rash, self-destructive behavior—has established himself as a private detective, engaging in “discreet enquiries.” Actually, the only case Hammersmith cares one whit about is the disappearance of his friend and former boss, Walter Day. With money supplied by the inspector’s wife, Claire (who has earned recent renown by publishing poetry under the necessarily male pseudonym Rupert Winthrop), Hammersmith has established a Camden office and taken on two employees: wealthy but bored Eugenia Merrilow, who has signed on as the agency’s secretary-cum-office manager; and young Hatty Pitt, whose arrogant husband was slain in The Harvest Man, and who now longs to prove herself as a criminal sleuth. It’s through Hatty’s initiative, in fact, that the Hammersmith agency takes on an investigation destined to tie together many of Lost and Gone Forever’s plot elements. It seems a notably efficient gent named Joseph Hargreave, who had managed the daily affairs at Plumm’s, a grand new, everything-for-everybody department store (reminiscent of the emporium central to R.N. Morris’ The Mannequin House), failed to show up for work after his first week on the job. Hargreave’s brother wants Hammersmith to find out what’s become of him, though it’s really Hatty who takes on the legwork.
Then there’s a particularly strange couple, Mr. and Mrs. Parker, who have come to London and concealed themselves in a flophouse. It seems they’re contract assassins from the Continent who have been hired to locate the Ripper and take his life before he can exact revenge on members of the Karstphanomen—an enterprise in which Jack is already busily engaged. Their employer in this task turns out to be something of a surprise—yet nowhere near as surprising as the Parkers themselves. Though outwardly ordinary, it seems Mrs. Parker is somewhat over-anxious to practice her skills: Her husband must chain her to the bed at night, lest she make him her victim as well.
Grecian has gone quite a bit farther than most novelists to reinvigorate the malevolent spirit of Jack the Ripper. His intra-series trilogy, though it has sometimes taken melodramatic turns, expertly blends tightly choreographed action and finely constructed players with lighthearted moments and a modicum of romance feathered in here and there. The author told Crimespree Magazine that he finds the Ripper “disturbingly easy for me to write, which is probably why I kept him around for the three most recent books, but he’s not the most pleasant fellow to have around, so I’m glad to see the back of him now.” One wonders, though, whether readers drawn to the Day series by Jack’s captivating role will be content to see him slip off the stage so soon.
By comparison, the Ripper provides merely a starting point for The Strings of Murder, Mexico City-born author/violinist Oscar de Muriel’s vivid, periodically macabre, but also oft-humorous whodunit, published last year in Britain, but new to these shores. If you’re fond of character-rich, locked-room mysteries, you’ll want to give this one notice.
It’s November 1888, and foppish, rather fussy Inspector Ian Frey is dismissed from Scotland Yard amid a change of leadership, not only disappointing his well-to-do family (who always thought a policeman’s lot was quite beneath him, anyway), but losing his fiancée in the process. Luckily for Frey, his crime-solving acumen has not gone completely unnoticed. In the aftermath of his dismissal, Prime Minister Lord Salisbury personally, but secretly, gives him another assignment: travel to Edinburgh, Scotland, to look into the vicious slaying of a violinist in his own home, a homicide that all too readily brings to mind Jack the Ripper’s bloody predations. Frey has a longstanding antipathy toward the Scots, so this doesn’t sound like the best-ever gig. And it’s made worse by news that he’ll be working in “Auld Reekie” with a questionable new police subdivision devoted to, of all things, investigating apparitions.
Making the situation still less appealing to Frey is that he’ll have to work under the command of an eccentric, erratic, foul-mouthed, and altogether larger-than-life detective named Adolphus McGray, better known as “Nine-Nails” in recognition of his missing a finger.
Once landed in Edinburgh, Frey apprises himself of the facts in the case: virtuoso/teacher Guilleum Fontaine was eviscerated in his music studio, yet the door to that chamber remained firmly locked. How did the killer or killers get in, and how did they exit again? Of what significance are the black magic symbols left upon the floor? And why does Fontaine’s maid say that immediately prior to her employer’s demise, “I would swear it sounded like…like there were many violins playin’ in the room, though it was just him there—“? The violence attending Fontaine’s expiry does suggest the Ripper’s labors. But could it be credited instead to a purportedly famous, and perhaps also cursed, violin in Fontaine’s collection? And should the other musicians now set to inherit Fontaine’s instruments worry that they, too, might be bound for early graves?
Frey and Nine-Nails could hardly be more different from one another. Yet—despite their frequent and grandiloquent exchanges of insults (McGray is particularly fond of addressing Frey as “lassie”)—and the Scottish inspector’s perverse trust in clairvoyants to help solve offenses, the pair learn to work in grudging concert, analyzing not only the circumstances of Fontaine’s passing, but also a succession of murders following in its wake. It becomes clear soon enough that somebody other than the Ripper has set the agenda here. But that’s about all that’s clear, as the plot hurtles forward, raising suspicions about musical numbers fit only for the Devil and violin strings made from human intestines, disclosing the source of McGray’s fervent interest in the occult, endangering the life of Frey’s beloved younger brother, and revealing a wraith-like figure who may have played a part in all of these horrors.
De Muriel’s insistence on making the Scottish characters, especially McGray, speak in dialect (“Ah told ye Ah’m CID, so shut that hole in yer face or I’ll break yer twiggy arms right here.”) can be colorful, but it also tends to slow one’s reading of this yarn. Happily, the author balances that out with an attention to historical atmospherics and droll dialogue that make it easy to forget this is a first novel. The first of many, perhaps. The snobbish Frey and the uncouth McGray already star in a sequel, A Fever in the Blood, which was released earlier this year in the UK, and if we’re fortunate will make it to the States by 2017.