For some reason I had a phase where I was fascinated with the Jack the Ripper murders, at one point I even picked up a thick paperback encyclopedia with everything related to the murders (at the time it was published sometime back in the 90’s). Eventually I lost interest in reading about the various theories on whodunit and why he got away with it and went on to something else. Then last month while wandering up and down the aisles of Barnes and Noble, I stumbled across Ripper by Stefan Petrucha with the tag line “You thought you knew him. You were dead wrong.” A tag line and title like that, told me what the book was about, but what kept me from simply walking by it was the fact that it was in the teen fiction section. Because, you know, who puts a novel about Jack the Ripper in the teen or young adult fiction section!? That quirk factor led me to give the liner notes a read, the word steampunk popped up in there and I was sold. Oh, and there was the added bonus of a snort laugh fit at discovering in the front matter of the book that the text was set in “12 Point Bembo”—someone with some musical talent please start a band with this name!
The novel is set in 1895 inNew York Cityand the protagonist of the novel is a 14 year old orphan named Carver Young (hence the young adult/teen classification). Teddy Roosevelt is the Police Commissioner and there’s a super secret detective organization called the New Pinkertons operating out of the old Alfred Beach Pneumatic Subway (seen briefly in Ghostbusters II you may recall) and chock full of steampunk devices which make sporadic appearances throughout the novel. Carver, due to a change in the status of the orphanage he resides in, finds himself in need of a new home fast—or else he’ll end up on the streets. Being extremely interested in police work, he’s encouraged to write a letter to Teddy Roosevelt in hopes of finding a job with the police department. He’s also recently discovered in his file at the orphanage a cryptic letter that appears to be from his biological father. He believes if he can get himself an interview withRoosevelt, he might be able to start looking for his father while working for the police. The letter to Roosevelt leads to a sort of apprenticeship with Albert Hawking, a retired and somewhat disabled Pinkerton Detective. Hawking brings Carver into the New Pinkertons organization and helps with his training so that he can track down his father while developing his own problem solving and detective skills. The New Pinkertons are on the hunt for a killer who seems to be following in the footsteps of Jack the Ripper and leave Carver on his own most of the time. The hope is that if they find him, then they can step out of the shadows and bring back the glory days of the original Pinkertons agency. The goals of the New Pinkertons and of Carver Young quickly become intertwined and the race to find the Ripper before he strikes again leads you through the rest of the novel.
I thoroughly enjoyed this read. The main violence of the killings happens “off screen” as it were, so it’s pretty light on the gore. There’s a sweet budding romance and a feeling that the main character could carry over to other stories. Mixing real history into fiction can always be tricky, but Mr. Petrucha has done it well. I’m still on the fence as to whether there’s enough steampunk in this novel to bother with classifying it as such though. The unusual devices that pop up for Carver to use were all plausible devices that were simply ahead of their time. I’m not against their inclusion; they were done in such a way that they felt very natural–like they belonged in the real 1895. All that coupled with the mystery Carver was trying to solve and the twists and turns that came up along the way make for an enjoyable read. Mr. Petrucha not only developed his main characters well, but he also did an excellent job with the peripheral and minor characters. They are fully developed and their actions always seem fitting based on what you’ve learned about them—even the “bad” characters don’t come off as bad for the sake of filling a function, you could understand why they are the way they were. I do believe that the real reward of the novel is the amazing twist that comes at the end. I’ve read a lot of mysteries over the years and I’ve read a lot of novels in general where the author really wants to shock people with a twist to shake things up. It’s always a wonderful surprise to get hit with a twist, have a momentary “wait…what!?” pause, followed by a re-read to make sure you got that right–then sit back and realize it’s perfect. More people need to read this so I can talk about the twist!