I thought it would be fitting to start with the first pastiche I ever read, back when it came out in 1992. I remember barreling through it then, and each time I’ve read it, I’ve come away with a new appreciation of how Hanna, an award-winning journalist and member of the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), was able to conflate fact and fiction.
The story begins, as many pastiches do, with an explanation of its existence. Cox and Company, as well as the tin dispatch box, are long gone. However, in the director’s safe at Claridge’s, a leather portfolio (initialed “J.W.”) keeps company with a bottle of ancient Armagnac. At least it did until recently. The director, one Ronald Jones, decided to actually open it as part of his first day on the job. There, along with a letter tracing its provenance to one John Hamish Watson, M.D., via Mr. Elwyn Anstruther and Dr. Ian Anstruther, he finds a collection of notes, which Dr. Watson wished to keep from publication until 2000, or 50 years after his death, whichever came first (obviously, Watson anticipated a long life; was it the royal jelly?). At any rate, Watson died in 1929, leaving Mr. Jones free to give his shocking story to the world.
After this explanation, Hanna does something that it is hard to get away with twenty years later: he eases the reader into the story. Rather than starting at the crime scene, bang in the middle of the action, we get to accompany Holmes and Watson to Simpson’s after they’ve seen a theater production of Jekyll and Hyde. During this chapter, Hanna takes the time to introduce the pair to any novices who might be reading. We get a snapshot of their physical characteristics, friendship, habits (the cigarette case makes an appearance), eccentricities, and, of course, Holmes’ ability to deduce all manner of information about people simply by observing a few details. When they get back to Baker Street that night, however, they have visitors, namely DI (Detective Inspector) Abberline and Sergeant Thicke. It is September 1, 1888.
Abberline and Thicke are, of course, real people, as is the victim, Polly Nichols, lying cold on the slab in the mortuary on Montague Street. If you’re looking for some of your favorite canon characters, you won’t be disappointed. Mrs. Hudson is there, as is Shinwell Jackson and the Irregulars. Lestrade and Mary Morstan are mentioned, and Mycroft is pivotal. However, the Ripper was, unfortunately, a real person, and Hanna never shies away from using real people as characters, taking Holmes and Watson to historical places, or involving them in actual events. Along with the morgue, Holmes and Watson visit a salon hosted by Oscar Wilde, various government offices, and interact with the Prince of Wales, Lord Randolph Churchill, Sir Charles Warren, the Rev. and Mrs. Samuel Barnett, and the young George Bernard Shaw, among others. Of the lengthy list, only the Shaw meeting seemed to me to be a little self-indulgent, particularly as it leads to a discussion of London dialects (of course you know where that’s going). And it must be noted, Hanna occasionally has a character say something which turns out to be anachronistic, as when Holmes quotes Oscar Wilde, from a play which was not written until 1893. Discrepancies such as this (Watson reading from a two-day old paper, for example) are dutifully noted in the copious and invaluable end matter, but while some of it may be essential to the plot, other bits seem to be just authorial hijinks, and could have been left out.
When it comes to Sherlockian and historical chronology, however, Hanna works hard to keep things straight. One of the problems with Holmes involving himself in the Ripper case is, of course, that HOUN* occurs smack in the middle of it, at least according to the Baring-Gould, Folsom, and Thomson chronologies. This is convenient, as it explains why Holmes stays in London and sends Watson to Devon, but inconvenient as they have to split their attention between a diabolical serial-killer and a demonic hound. Hanna does a wonderful job of accommodating both cases, and explaining the situation to the reader with minimal distraction. One has to think that, as Holmes manages to get himself into a dire situation and has the stuffing beaten out of him, he had cause to regret sending Watson off to Baskerville Hall.
Hanna follows the Ripper timeline scrupulously, and includes forensic evidence, some accurate (a letter, a painted message, a broken window), some manufactured (cigarette ends) and some altered (Holmes gets his own kidney delivery). By the end of October, Holmes is pretty sure where all of this evidence is leading; the only question is, what to do about it? The remainder of the book–over one-third–deals with this dilemma, and now Hanna does some of his best work. He is a sedately elegant writer, and it’s here, when he shows his characters grappling with all sides of a painful, untenable, unimaginable situation–and the solution they ultimately choose–that he truly shines. The first several pages of chapter 25, as well chapters 26 and 27 (both of which occur post-Hiatus) have bleakly poetic moments, well-eclipsing any prior silly mentions of Convent Garden flower girls. Throughout the book, Hanna does a wonderful job of depicting the Holmes-Watson relationship, both positives and negatives; however, in these last chapters, we see again how, as much as Holmes values Watson, there are always aspects of his life to which the Doctor will be perpetually denied access.
As you might have guessed, I love The Whitechapel Horrors and believe it well worth your time. The only real flaw that kept gnawing at me was the fact that Watson does not tell the story. This is, of course, not necessary for a good Sherlockian novel. In fact, if an author fears he or she cannot capture Watson’s voice, it’s better not to try. However, by presenting the story as a product of Watson’s notes, he should have told the story solely from Watson’s point-of-view, whether in first or limited third person–a problem, as Watson is not present for some key parts of the investigation. Instead, Hanna uses a near-omniscient third: we’re in Watson’s head, Holmes’, and even, briefly, those of other characters–and canon-Watson doesn’t really speculate in that fashion. In a more quibbling vein, Hanna indulges a bit in the “as you know, Bob” method of imparting information. Characters lecture each other on the living conditions of Whitechapel, prostitute behavior, and other topics that, logically, they should already be familiar with. The details are generally fascinating and occasionally Hanna gets away with it, but quite a few examples are glaring, and a little annoying. In other instances, we’re told what a character is feeling, when a writer as capable as Hanna should be able to demonstrate this through action or dialogue, rather than spelling it out for the reader. At least once, there is an unwitting anachronism, as when Aide-de-Camp Burton-Fitzherbert uses “party” as a verb, but that’s something an editor should have caught.
It’s always a reviewer’s duty to point out such flaws, but in the case of The Whitechapel Horrors, the specks are minor, and almost invisible in the scope of the story. The Whitechapel Horrors was the first pastiche I ever read, and I’m so grateful it was.
Notes and Purchasing Information:
Edward Hanna died on January 6, 2008, which makes this posting date a little more significant; however, you can still view his webpage at http://www.members.authorsguild.net/ebhanna/
*In this blog, I’ll be using the standard abbreviations for the Conan Doyle stories and novels. It’s easy–just use the first four letters of each title (excluding articles). HOUN, therefore, is The Hound of the Baskervilles, STUD is “A Study in Scarlet,” and so on.
The Whitechapel Horrors was reprinted by Titan Press (although you can still find copies of the first edition online). It’s available for Kindle and Nook and on major bookseller websites. You can also order it from independent bookstores, such as:
http://www.mysteriousbookshop.com/ (where the author’s name is misspelled as “Hannah”).
For more information on Jack the Ripper, try:
Curtis, L. and L. Perry Curtis, Jr. Jack the Ripper and the London Press. Yale University Press, 2001
Evans, Stewart P. and Donald Rumbelow. Jack the Ripper: Scotland Yard Investigates. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2010
Evans, Stewart P. and Keith Skinner. The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Skyhorse Publishing, 2009.
Star Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5
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