Jack the Ripper is perhaps one of, if not the most, (in)famous serial killers of all time. His brutal murder of five known (and perhaps more unknown) women in and around London’s Whitechapel district ensured his notoriety in the annals of history and, of course, in literature. The fact that no one has ever figured out who, precisely, Jack the Ripper is only adds to the mystique, and it is because of that mystique that the Ripper continues to be a constant presence in the collective memory of popular culture.
Given the time period during which the Ripper operated, an interesting question that has lingered in the minds of some writers is: what would happen if Sherlock Holmes had been involved in solving the Ripper murders? It is a question that many fans and enthusiasts of Sherlock Holmes have asked at least once in the course of their interaction with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation: could the inimitable Sherlock Holmes have succeeded where so many others have failed and identified and captured the Ripper, if he had been permitted to do so? This possibility has already been explored in various media, from novels to television shows to video games, but the most recent iteration of this concept is Lyndsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson.
Dust and Shadow opens with an explanation from Dr. Watson as to why Holmes’ involvement in the Ripper investigation was kept secret. According to Dr. Watson, there were two reasons for doing so: the first is that he felt the narrative was too open-ended, and therefore would not go over well with a reading public that prefers conclusive endings. The second reason is made clear at the end of the novel itself.
In truth, there’s nothing new here that the reader would not already expect of a proper Holmes pastiche. Holmes is as any reader expects him to be, which is a good sign because there are a great many pastiches out there that do not quite write him so well. My only issue with this particular Holmes is that his switches in mood are a bit more extreme than I remember them to be in the originals, but I personally think this to be a minor flaw. Watson is pretty much spot-on, for the most part, as are Lestrade and Mycroft. The writing style is, of course, not exactly like Doyle’s, but again that is to be expected: no one can sound exactly like Doyle except Doyle himself, and he is long dead. Other writers can only attempt to sound like Doyle as best as they can, and fortunately, Faye manages to do just fine in that department.
As for the Ripper himself, it’s obvious that Faye has her own ideas regarding his identity, which is made clear in the novel itself. Many people have been put forward as the face behind Jack the Ripper, but Faye’s spin on it is interesting. She proposes that it was actually a member of London’s Metropolitan Police force who was Jack the Ripper – an idea that actually holds water, because it’s likely the Ripper had more than passing knowledge of the way the police force worked in order to have done what he did without once being caught. There is also an attempt at behavioral analysis in the course of the novel, involving a very minor character from the Holmes canon, but it doesn’t go as well as I think it could have. While I do find it admirable that the attempt was made, it doesn’t seem to go over as well as I would like.
Another thing that bothers me about this is the ending. It rather feels like it was forced on the reader, somehow, as if there was so much more that could have been done and yet it ended where it did. I suppose it was just because Faye wanted to stick to the five murders mentioned in the history books, but I felt that the death of Ms. Monk, Holmes and Watson’s intrepid associate throughout the novel, would have been thoroughly appropriate and added extra emotional weight to the capture and/or death of the Ripper. But Holmes saves her in the nick of time, and manages to bring the Ripper to justice – of a sort.
And that is another thing that bothers me about this: the fact that one never truly finds out what is going on in the Ripper’s mind. There’s a lot of conjecture, of course, and Faye would have been free to do the same, given how she had already speculated as to the identity of the Ripper as a policeman in the first place, but that doesn’t happen. I was really rather hoping that Holmes would get to pick the Ripper’s mind, as he does in other stories and novels in the Holmes canon, but that never happens. This might be another reason why the ending falls so flat: there is not of that catharsis, in the form of finding out the villain’s motivations, that occurs in the canon. Even worse, this is an interview that would certainly make it into legend: Holmes picking the brain of the Ripper to find out just what darkness, what shadows, made this man murder five women in the most ghastly manner. But it never happens. I can only suppose that the author steered clear of such a scenario because no one can factually claim to know what was going on in the Ripper’s head that caused him to do what he did. While this adherence to factuality is admirable, it does make for less of an exciting conclusion to a story that is fictional anyway, and so there is much room to speculate on the Ripper’s motives and thoughts.
Overall, Dust and Shadow is everything that a proper Holmes pastiche ought to be: no character is out-of-character; narrative is as close to the tone of the original canon as possible. It is throwing in Jack the Ripper that could have made this a standout, and while the lead-up to the ending lives up to expectation, the ending falls rather flat on its face, lacking a little extra something that could have made this novel quite something apart from others like it. Unfortunately, there is no oomph, only a fizzle that makes this novel enjoyable while being read, but rather forgettable once it has been put down.