Jackaby by William Ritter
Reviewed by Kayla Dean
Algonquin Young Readers, September 16, 2014 — 299 pages. Available in hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audiobook.
You might want to take a second look at Jackaby by William Ritter if you love the vibe of a Victorian novel, the urban sprawl of chilly New England in America’s Gilded Age, and the flair of an atmospheric murder mystery. Though it has its ups and downs, the lovely cover and intriguing first chapter drew me in.
A YALSA Top-Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults pick, Jackaby promises to deliver on a tall order to be the cross between Doctor Who and Sherlock — a novel “brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre,” according to the book jacket. R.F. Jackaby, the title character, is our “Sherlock,” just as New Fiddleham, the fictional New England town, is our London. Just as the setting is a character in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, so is New Fiddleham in Ritter’s debut novel.
We begin the story in New Fiddleham in 1892, where Abigail Rook just made her way off a ship from Europe. Weary, homeless, and in search of a new life, Abigail notes the moody, gas-lit city. Through her eyes,
“The city of New Fiddleham glistened in the fading dusk, lamplight playing across the icy buildings that lined the waterfront, turning their brickwork to twinkling diamonds in the dark.”
Early on in the novel, we learn that Abigail is a runaway from Hampshire, England. She is a girl who ran away from the conformity of a society girl’s life. She rejected ball gowns and bows for adventures, but she has found more than her fair share of struggles along the way. Abigail is no stranger to the odd looks people give her when she wears an old dress or men’s trousers. Her dream, although not clearly revealed to us, is to experience the world first-hand and make her own way in the world.
In a pub, Abigail meets Jackaby, and in her search for employment, she finds herself on the scene of a crime as a detective’s assistant. Jackaby, her employer (and a witty, odd fellow who solves crimes with a touch of genius), sees beyond normal sight. Although we aren’t sure why, Jackaby can see fairies, redcaps, banshees, and other supernatural creatures.
After a well-known journalist is found dead in his apartment, it isn’t long before other victims start falling prey to the enigmatic, and probably inhuman, killer. Urged on by the call of a banshee, Jackaby knows more will die before he catches the murderer. But we know from taking a look in his unusual home, filled with ghosts, an upstairs pond, a well-loved library, and a messy laboratory, Jackaby has all the tools he needs to find the murderer.
Jackaby is quirky in his own way: he wears a coat with so many pockets that at the police station, they can’t even process his belongings before morning — and this is a regular occurrence. He also wears a strange hat, and he has a friend who may or may not be a seer herself.
Ritter really gives the reader a great sense of the sensory detail. We are constantly grounded in the setting, because the author evokes rich detail to describe everything in Abigail and Jackaby’s world. We note the way the light gleams or how fog filters through the streets as mysterious characters weave their way through the small town. And while New Fiddleham is not a real place, the setting Ritter shows the reader is vivid and brings to mind other New England locales.
Ritter takes a unique look at New England during this time era. We get a rich sense of New England in the Gilded Age, one of this country’s most formative eras. Instead of choosing New York, or some other large city, Ritter wrote about a small, atmospheric town. And instead of writing about the rich, Ritter takes a look at the poor and the lost.
This novel suggests a Victorian mood even though it is in an American setting. We see this through Abigail’s journey from Hampshire, and through the moody descriptions of a foggy New England town in the midst of a string of murders that evoke Jack the Ripper.
This book is decidedly an urban fantasy, but it does not have the same pacing as many books in the genre. While Jackaby more than delivers on rich description and flair, it does have its shortcomings in characterization.
Abigail and Jackaby are both enjoyable characters, but we really don’t get a sense of either of them. We know Abigail’s story from the first chapter, but we don’t really see more than an impression of what her life was like back in Hampshire besides vague references to her parents and their constricting rules. Also, while Jackaby is mysterious and clever, we don’t know where he’s from, why he can see the paranormal, or where he gets his genius from. It doesn’t seem like enough of a justification that he is simply an archetype of Sherlock Holmes. However, this is the first in a series, so perhaps these questions will be answered in the sequels.
As far as style is concerned, I was surprised at the sheer amount of backstory we get on Abigail so early on in the novel. Also, I was struck by how little dialogue there was in the beginning. I had to flip some pages before the real talking began. Even then, the novel did not race by with the speed of a thriller like I expected it would.
If you like to linger over the setting of a novel, then Jackaby is right up your (gas-lit) alley. However, this pick is not a heart-pounding suspense novel. The mystery is not the crowning jewel of this story. Read it for the atmosphere and style, preferably with a cup of tea. Don’t forget to imagine Abigail’s British accent while reading. And remember — it’s not Jackaby she’s sitting across from at the kitchen table: it’s Sherlock Holmes in another life.