Having a family, a home and a life outside of an institution is a coveted luxury that many an orphan craved in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. So, after 14-year-old orphan Carver Young is fortunate enough to be adopted at his advanced age, he steps right into dreamy, conventional domesticity. Right? Wrong.

When a crotchety man named Hawking, who happens to reside in a mental institution, adopts him, Carver is immediately swept into a secret world of crime detection, mesmerizing gadgetry and undercover operatives scrambling to solve a string of murders eerily similar to those of Jack the Ripper. Moreover, amid the hubbub of his new life, Carver discovers that his bloodlines have been harboring a horrible secret.

Find more steampunk for teens.

Stefan Petrucha talks about his starting point for Ripper, his theories about Jack the Ripper and why John Huston still creeps him out.

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What came first, wanting to write a period crime novel or to further examine the case of Jack the Ripper?

In a way, neither. Like everyone on the planet, I’m a big admirer of J.K. Rowling. Like most people on the planet, I’m also a fan of the Dave Barry/Ridley Pearson Peter and the Starcatchers series. My initial desire was to write a grand, epic adventure along those lines. But, convinced history is every bit as fascinating as magic, I wanted to write something more grounded in the weirdness of reality than the reality of weirdness.

I have a background in horror [the Wicked Dead series, Blood Prophecy, etc.], I’d written about Jack the Ripper previously [in Shadow of Frankenstein], and I’ve always been fascinated by quasi-steampunk things like the Alfred Beach pneumatic subway system. So, while it may seem odd, the combination felt completely natural.

Having researched the grisly Whitechapel murders, what are your theories of who Jack might have actually been?

I’m very fond of the way Saucy Jack plays out in the book, and there are no fewer than six official Ripper suspects who visited New York City, but clearly Ripper is speculation for the sake of adventure. As for reality, for a long time I considered Dr. Francis Tumblety a good bet. He was in Whitechapel at the time, deeply misogynist and carried around a collection of women’s uteruses in a suitcase. I mean, sheesh, what else do you need? Arrested in London, he fled to New York where he was kept under surveillance for a while.

Another interesting suspect is James Kelly, who violently murdered his wife and was committed to an asylum. He escaped shortly before the Ripper slayings began, then left shortly after they stopped. Forty years later, he showed up at the asylum to check himself back in. He wrote a journal about his travels to London, NYC and elsewhere, and about being “on the warpath.” He certainly had the personality for it. As for Jack’s motives, scores of treatises on the psychology of serial killers have been written, too complicated to go into here. Suffice it to say, I think he was crazy.

Carver is understandably terrified of the possible threat of heredity. What are your thoughts on the great nature-vs.-nurture debate?

I think the truth is in between. Heredity provides a complex set of proclivities, leanings, raw abilities, etc. The environment determines to what use they’re put. Batman’s a pretty violent guy, for instance, but because he channels it at the bad guys, he’s a hero. So, things can always go either way. At 14, Carver has no idea what direction he’ll go in—and that would terrify anyone.

Hawking says seeing what one is made of is never a pleasant process for anyone. What figure, factual or fictional, do you think should really be afraid of this process and why?

Well, as per Hawking, everyone. We like to think our “self” is a solid thing, so it’s extremely uncomfortable and frightening to look at the “pieces”—for the first time anyway. Beyond that, there are doubtless horrid people completely comfortable with being horrid, so the answer would have to be someone who believed they were one thing, but was actually the opposite. 

A doctor convinced he wanted to help others but was actually a sadist, for example, or someone who thought themselves caring but actually only helped others for the sake of getting attention. Any dictator responsible for mass slayings come to mind—but there’s also the fear on my part that even if they saw what they were made of, they wouldn’t mind a bit.

Father of the year: Darth Vader or Noah Cross (John Huston in Chinatown)?

Ha! The original Darth Vader from the first two movies was a fun villain—if someone annoyed him, he killed them. For me he reaches his peak as a “dark father” figure. But, as his soul is “saved” and later films depict his formative years as Anakin, I find him less and less interesting. I was hoping for a moment in his development where he just embraced his evil, but he always seemed ambivalent about it.

The incestuous Noah Cross, on the other hand, gives me the creeps just thinking about him—especially that shot toward the end where he wraps his long bony fingers around his granddaughter’s shoulder. Brr. Now that’s Jack the Ripper.

Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Greenpoint Brooklyn, N.Y. When he's not diving headfirst into teen literature, he's writing, drawing (WallaceWest.com), observing (ITakeMyCameraEverywhereIGo.com) or scouring the culinary landscape for gluten-free fare. His beagle mix, Sammy Joe, is supportive of all endeavors.