Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ripper Redux

For reasons of his own -- perhaps because for him the Ripper killings were not ancient history but current events -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never set his genius creation Sherlock Holmes on the track of London's most infamous killer. It's been left to others to do so, sometimes with the blessing of the Doyle estate and sometimes not.

Lyndsay Faye's first novel was one of those with the blessing, as she pitted Holmes' brilliance against Saucy Jack's demented bloodlust in her 2009 Dust and Shadow. Faye is a fan and student of 19th century crime-solving and of Holmes in particular, and she works hard to get the proper voice for her story's narrator, Dr. John H. Watson, M.D. It's not Doyle's Watson, who was ordinarily more phlegmatic and less rattled by his friend's strange obsession with mystery solving and abrupt manner. But it is Watson, which puts readers where we belong -- outside the blazing incomprehensible genius of Holmes and doing our best to keep up.

As Faye writes the story, Holmes' great mental faculties are stretched almost to breaking by the need to stop the madman from killing more women. He feels the pressure of the entire city's near-panic at the murderer in their midst and frustration at his inability to see inside the mind of something mostly unknown to the 19th century -- a sociopathic serial killer. But he wonders -- if he really can get inside Jack's mind to guess his identity or his next move, will he be able to come back out? Or will it break him entirely?

Faye, as mentioned above, creates a recognizably Victorian voice for her narrative, and pays attention to period detail with a keen observational eye. The world may or may not need novelizations of the fictional Sherlock Holmes tracking or apprehending the real-world Jack the Ripper, but if it's going to have them then hers is better than many others.
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Skip forward into the 1900s, and Clive Cussler and Justin Scott bring their turn-of-the-century hero, Isaac Bell, onto the trail of a brutal killer stalking women in the United States and leaving them dead and mutilated. The more Isaac probes the mystery, the more he begins to wonder if he is tracking someone who's been at this game a long time. Someone who -- perhaps -- tried out his trade at first in the London slum called Whitechapel but who for know is known as The Cutthroat.

Isaac, the chief investigator of the Van Dorn Detective Agency, comes to the case when a young woman turns up murdered in her room. Her father had hired the Van Dorns to find his daughter, but Isaac had not put much worry into the actions of a nearly-grown young woman who had apparently chosen to make her own way instead of her parents' way. Isaac feels personally responsible for the oversight that put the young woman into her killer's path instead of home safe with her parents, so when other bodies, similarly disfigured, turn up, he persuades his boss to devote the agency's resources to finding the killer or killers.

Cussler and Scott lay a couple of interesting cards on the table. In the 1911 world of the novel, there is as yet no national law enforcement agency or even any real coordination and information sharing among police departments. Only the Van Dorns with their nationwide reach (they're modeled on the real-life Pinkerton Detective Agency, but without the strikebreaking), can see all of the puzzle pieces, such as strings of similar murders or disappearances in cities across the U.S. By setting the action in and around a traveling national production of Jekyll and Hyde, they highlight an interesting moment of showbiz, as technology allowed stage productions to mount more spectacular touring shows even while it is creating the movie business that will all but kill them.

But they also rely on brief segments from the killer's point of view which really do nothing but try to emphasize his chameolonic capacity for disguise. A couple of the described murders offer links to clues Isaac and his team will uncover, but not many. The rest bring a real taint of ugliness to what is, even when it's dealing with sabotage and murder, a series basked more on derring-do and adventure than modern psycho-killer Lecter Lite tales. This taint makes Cutthroat one of the lesser entries in the Bell series.
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Arthur Byron Cover's 1979 An East Wind Coming opens with the Wolfman attacking Lois Lane, only for her to be saved at the last second when Sherlock Holmes teleports the werewolf back outside the city.

Then it gets weird.

None of these characters, except for the Wolfman, are named although folks who follow comics, pulp fiction and old movies will probably recognize them. "Holmes," for example, is never called that, only "the consulting detective." Watson is "the good doctor." Sydney Greenstreet's Maltese Falcon character is "the fat man." And so on.

In Cover's "Great Mystery Trilogy", an un-named calamity at some time in the future wiped out most of the human race. But the creatures who caused the problem, as a way of trying to make amends, give the remaining humans amazing power over matter and mortality. They are "godlike men," to distinguish them from the "mere men" they were before. Interestingly, some of the most powerful among them choose to refashion themselves as different movie, comic book and pulp magazines. So Sherlock Holmes, Captain Marvel (the first one) and Lois Lane all find themselves coexisting with each other, basically not doing much of anything except in rare emergencies like the Wolfman's attack. The adaptations aren't perfect, and the cast frequently breaks character to act like more recognizably modern people than their assumed identities.

The consulting detective fears this ennui will lead to significant problems for the godlike men. It's already pushed some of them to create a slum based on old London's Whitechapel, and he fears that one or another godlike human will decide to make his statement about society by becoming a new Jack the Ripper, Once that happens, the detective and others among the most poweful of the altered humans must track and stop him or else the rising tide of terror and uncertainty could endanger their existence.

The series' first volume, Autumn Angels, was very much a product of its boundary-pushing time and context -- the late 1960s and early 1970s in the circle of one of science fiction's "mad geniuses' Harlan Ellison. Wind tones some of that down in favor of a little bit more linear narrative, but is still very head trippy. It's also very dialogue heavy and interested on transgressing lines related to sexuality, philosophy and the meaning of existence. The combination ages quickly, making it easy to lose interest in the sketched-out plot after wading through page after page of conversation and explicit sexual encounters.

By the end, East Wind feels as dated as some of the pulp greats it uses as Cover tries to say something about human existence and satisfaction, using them as his own heiroglyphic alphabet. They can generate some slight interest on their own as we read to see which one is which and who a particular character is supposed to be, but that's not enough to keep deciphering the whole thing from being more than a chore and a half.

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