A few facts. The Jack the Ripper murders occurred in 1888. Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance, in 1877’s A Study in Scarlet, the year before. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle opened his practice in London in 1891, three years after. So, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the author followed the widely publicized murders. Nor is it inconceivable that, arguably, the two most famous men of Victorian England – a detective and a murderer – would have crossed paths. Granted, serial killers and graphic violence were not Doyle’s style. But subsequent Sherlock Holmes pastiche authors haven’t displayed the same qualms, to varying results.
Lyndsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson is one of the best Holmes pastiches I’ve come across in a long time. It is also leaps ahead of any of the other versions in which the famous detective pursues Jack the Ripper. No wonder the Conan Doyle Estate has endorsed the book. The voice of Dr. Watson is flawlessly channeled, and the conclusions Faye makes as to the identity of the Ripper fit in perfectly with the historical facts. She opens her story with just the right amount of foreboding, setting the tone for what is to follow.
At first it seemed the Ripper affair had scarred my friend Sherlock Holmes as badly as it had the city of London itself. I would encounter him at the end of his nightlong vigils, lying upon the sofa with his violin at his feet and his hypodermic syringe fallen from long, listless fingers, neither anodyne having banished the specter of the man we had pursued for over two months. I fought as best I could for his health, but as a fellow sufferer I could do little to dispel his horror at what had occurred, his petrifying fear that somehow, in some inhuman feat of genius, he could have done more than he did.
At length, though never for publication, I determined that in the interests of my own peace of mind I should write the matter down. I think only in my struggle to record the Reichenbach Falls business have I borne so heavy a weight as I laid pen against paper. They were evil days for me, and Holmes more than once, up and about as the cases flooded in with more force than he could practically avoid, leaned against my desk and remarked, “Come see about the Tarlington matter with me. You needn’t write this, my dear fellow. The world has already forgotten him, you know. One day we shall too.”
However, as was very seldom the case, Sherlock Holmes was mistaken.
Dust and Shadows is suitable to both the casual and the fanatical reader. For the Sherlock Holmes aficionados there are references to the canonical works peppered throughout. For the uninitiated footnotes are thoughtfully provided. There are a few soft spots – the ending too neatly and happily tied up and the murderer too obvious, perhaps brought into the story too soon – but on the whole the game is impeccably played.
I’m always seeking out new Sherlock Holmes stories. Dr. Watson has become a familiar, reliable friend who I return to regularly. And while I’ve never been fond of pastiches in general (save me from ANOTHER Jane Austen sequel!) – Sherlock Holmes pastiches are in a class of their own. The clever authors, the ones who get it right, build and expand upon the foundation Sir Arthur Conan Doyle laid out. They keep the characters fresh and add to our knowledge of them. Lyndsay Faye ranks indisputably among these authors, the ones who in my opinion “got it right”. I hope, after such a strong debut, she’ll be visiting Baker Street again soon.
If Dust and Shadows leaves you wanting more, I recommend Neil Gaiman’s Lovecraft-ian short story A Study in Emerald and The Seven-Percent Solution by Nicholas Meyer (a game changer for all Holmes’ readers). Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, a story about Sherlock Holmes at the end of his life, is also worth looking up.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, New York (2009)
ISBN: 978 1 41658 330 1