I consider myself a Sherlockian, having eagerly devoured the entirety of the Sherlock Holmes collection at a young age, with many feedings since. One of the more common mediums for Sherlock Holmes is movies and television. I have enjoyed interpretations of Sherlock Holmes by Basil Rathbone (late 30s to mid 40s), Jeremy Brett (mid 80s to mid 90s) and the most recent addition, Benedict Cumberbatch, in the BBC: Sherlock (ongoing). Thus, when Mike asked if I would be interested in reviewing Sherlock Holmes: The Whitechapel Horrors by Edward B. Hanna (Titan Books, 2010), I jumped at the chance.
What I failed to realize at the time was this book actually falls outside my jurisdiction when it comes to mystery stories. True, it is a detective story, but a more accurate description would classify this book as a historical fiction. While my knowledge of Sherlock Holmes and Watson may be sufficient, my knowledge of Jack the Ripper was pretty much non-existent. I chose, however, to read the book before my trip to Wikipedia for a debriefing.
As a historical fiction, Hanna's book excels. The twenty-five pages of 'footnotes' at the back add substance and background to the reading experience. While some of the original story is adapted to accommodate Holmes, the details are as close to the original as could possibly be expected. Some details like the human kidney that was originally mailed to Mr. Lusk was mailed to Holmes instead - but the fact it was a kidney mailed, and the spirit of the letter enclosed is preserved. Details such as names, dates, and locations are matched (for the most part) to the historical account of the murders. Gruesome details of the throat slits, puncture wounds, removal of internal organs, and the mutilations per woman are also retold with acute accuracy.
Additionally, Hanna’s work has plenty of political content. The monarchy and political leaders of the day, such as Lord Randolph and the Prince of Wales, match what was known of their personalities and attitudes from research. The back notes provide more details on the known history of the political figures mentioned.
The result of this strong adherence to the actual timeline, details, and events creates a grounded, believable story. The amalgamation of historical ‘truths’ within the Sherlockian world is executed well, though becomes tedious in some areas. We see this when the story is worked around an absence from England by Watson, and then by Holmes, for the Hound of The Baskervilles mystery. Other mysteries are also commonly referenced, though not directly. Hanna grounds the story with other well-known characters from Doyle’s stories: Wiggins, The Baker Street Irregulars, Ms Hudson and Mary.
Hanna's work overall is quite believable. Once you get past some blatant character errors (mentioned below), the actual world and story created feel authentic. By authentic I mean a story that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could have written, but perhaps never edited or finished. However, being written in the third person rather than through Watson detracts from this effect. If these are indeed Watson’s notes of a case he was not allowed to disclose until 100 years had past, why wasn’t the story written the way all of Watson’s stories are written: from his point of view?
Hanna's Watson is a marginally passable facsimile of the Doctor, with some personality quirks that were perhaps present but by no means prominent in Doyle's Watson. Hanna's Watson comes across as a bit of an ass, especially during his commentary on how the poor deserve their lot. He tends to challenge Holmes and authority figures more brashly, and has a temper issue. Though his loyalty is unquestionable and his compassion towards Holmes ever unmoving: we are presented with a version of Watson missing a portion of his big heart. Perhaps the story being written from a third party perspective lends itself to a more external view of Watson, uncoloured by his own opinion of himself.
Sherlock Holmes has adopted the missing chunk of Watson's heart as he shows great compassion beyond the usual capabilities of his famous cold methodical being. Holmes also seems to have developed a propensity for talking to almost anyone, certainly a habit that Doyle's Holmes never would have suffered. Hanna excuses this behaviour by using phrases such as 'Holmes was uncommonly chatty.' This would be more meaningful should it have been uncommon throughout the story. Also, Holmes deviates from his usual deductive methods and creates theories without facts – a moment that nearly gave me heart palpitations. Unfortunately, our famous detective is slow to follow up on evidence he knows is solid, and arguably could be blamed for the deaths of all but the first victim due to his possession of valuable knowledge he fails to act on.
Overall, the speech and mannerisms of both primary characters is spot on, and the interactions between them gave me a nostalgic feeling that is a good replica of Doyle's work.
Now for the meat – feel free to skip down to here if the above bores you to death. The story has two blatant errors, which I think are its downfall from a technical perspective.
The worst part is the story takes a turn at the end, which is completely insane. Hanna via Holmes dismisses all the evidence collected throughout the story and suddenly doesn’t know whom Jack the Ripper is at all. The evidence that blatantly pointed towards a specific individual Holmes says is meaningless and that they just couldn’t have had the mind to do it. The end is outrageous and sure to boil your blood if you are a Sherlockian.
- Sherlock Holmes knows who the perpetrator is with very solid evidence by page 71-72, after the first murder. He fails to act on it or disclose the evidence till much later in the book... several murders later. With this evidence he could very well have prevented the future murders. In my mind, blood is certainly on his hands. This issue is never approached nor dealt with.
- The Whitechapel Horrors is 440 pgs long. However, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt who Jack the Ripper was on pg. 250. The connection was so incredibly blatant that Doyle’s Watson could have made the connection (and we know how daft he was). This is shameful for a detective story! When you give such valuable information away just over half way through the book, do you really expect people to finish reading? Hanna tries fumbling around with false leads in the latter half of the book that make Holmes look stupid, but the answer is blatant.
Even with the glaring errors, the book was an enjoyable read. I really liked the combination of actual history with one of my favourite fictional characters. If you enjoy Doyle's work, political fiction, or historical fiction I encourage you to take a gander and read Sherlock Holmes: The Whitechapel Horrors. However, if you like a good mystery that leaves you guessing till the very end, you are out of luck.