So once again we come to the gaslit streets and twisting alleys of Whitechapel during the fall of 1888, also known as the autmun of terror in Lyndsay Faye’s debut novel, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson. This is yet another take on the trope of pitting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master sleuth against Jack the Ripper, but this time, there are no royal conspiracies or secrets to keep. Instead, it is simply a fast-moving, suspenseful tale of Sherlock Holmes’s pursuit of a dangerous killer who shows no signs of stopping and takes delight in not only taunting the police, but Holmes himself.
It all begins with a strange letter addressed to Holmes, “written in red ink in an oddly erratic script,” ending with the sinister closing, “See you in hell, sooner than you think, Mr. Holmes.” The letter is filed away, but soon becomes an important clue in the mayhem that is about to unfold. After two grisly murders occur in Whitechapel, Inspector Lestrade comes to Baker Street seeking Holmes’s help, and both Holmes and Watson become embroiled in the investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders. Along the way, the resourceful Holmes recruits assistance not only from his band of Baker Street Irregulars, but from George Lusk, the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, and from the intrepid Mary Ann Monk, who was the last person to see one of the victims alive. As weeks pass and as the crimes escalate, it becomes apparent that the murderer has some sort of strange personal vendetta against Holmes and has even gone so far as to implicate Holmes in the crimes while the consulting detective roams the East End trying to track the Ripper down.
Faye evenly paces the plot and sprinkles the story with bits and pieces of both historical and Sherlockian detail. We see that Holmes is a detective ahead of his time; he has perfected a method of collecting fingerprints and uses the text Psychopathia Sexualis for assistance in putting together a sort of profile of the Ripper. Faye also does an excellent job of imitating Doyle’s style of narration in Watson’s voice, though–and someone else noticed this, too–their friendship is sometimes more reminiscent of Sherlock and John in BBC’s Sherlock. Mary Ann Monk’s character was also brilliant as she assists with the investigation and is treated more or less as a woman worthy of Holmes’s respect, much like Violet Hunter in “The Copper Beeches.”
Even when things seem at their bleakest, somehow knowing that Sherlock Holmes is on the case–even if it’s in the fictional world–provides some reassurance that somehow, things will be set right again. Even if it’s no the type of justice that would be sought in the courtroom, we know he won’t stop until some kind of justice is served and the case is solved. And that’s one thing that makes this pastiche such a satisfactory read.