Book Review: Jackaby by William Ritter

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 + (some scares, but nothing wildly inappropriate)

A tenacious young Brit takes on a job as assistant to an awkward-but-brilliant private detective in 19th century New England. We’ve heard a similar story before. A supernatural menace is striking all over town, and the police are too closed-minded to accept the unbelievable and figure out how the macabre cases connect. We know how that is going to end. A clever and bored young lady finds herself swept away on adventures by an energetic man whose world is a lot bigger and more magical than what she had ever imagined before. That show’s been on since 1963. William Ritter has combined a bunch of rather recognizable themes; story lines; and characteristics into a novel which, without introducing anything terribly new, manages to be entertaining and atmospheric all the same.

When I started reading Jackaby, I was a little wary about just how Sherlockian the beginning was. Unorthodox detective gets a new assistant and they mislead the police in order to investigate a murder their own weird way. The police don’t like to admit that they need his help, but he knows better than they do. Tum de tum de tum. But then the mystery turned out to be grisly and saturated in folkloric horror. The dead man was a reporter, and the gaping, gory wound that killed him is worryingly short of blood. In the same apartment building, a man is tortured by the sounds of a woman weeping so bitterly it is driving him mad. No one else can hear the crying, but those of us who like our creepy Irish fairy-tales might recognize the Banshee’s ominous wail. Someone in the police force is hiding something important. And whatever creature has stalked the area around New Fiddleham for a while is now within the city’s limits, threatening to go on a rampage that will have many more people hearing their own death-songs soon enough. Jackaby and his new assistant have to keep their eyes open for clues in both the regular and spiritual worlds if they’re going to stop the mysterious murderer in time.

I liked the main characters, as recognizable as they seemed. Abigail Rook, our narrator, had run away from her stuffy home life to participate in a dig for dinosaur bones, only to find the work less exciting than she had hoped. Rather than slink home to her parents, she boarded a boat to America with no real plan. In need of a job, she answers an advertisement requiring an investigative services assistant. The ad specifies: “strong stomach preferred” and “do not stare at the frog.” And that’s how she comes to work with Jackaby. It should come as no surprise that Jackaby himself is the major show-stealer of the book, since it’s named after him and all. He’s gangly and peculiar, always sporting a giant coat with his pockets full of odd instruments. Jackaby is on a different wavelength than most other people, and he’s often lost in his own thoughts. This leads to some rather amusing outburst and misunderstandings. (His response, when asked if he’s just pulling someone’s leg, is that he hasn’t touched her leg. That sort of thing.)

He can also see the invisible world of supernatural creatures intermingling with our own, and that’s what makes him special. Jackaby is like the son of Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle’s original and the BBC series version combined) and the 11th Doctor.  (I haven’t seen very much Doctor Who, so apologies if I’m wrong about that.) It’s an over-used character type nowadays, one that I predict might get old soon enough. But there’s enough of a difference with the fantasy-as-science aspect of his abilities to keep me from rolling my eyes at the parallels, for now. Abigail even notes the similarities between him and the detective “who consults for Scotland Yard in those stories,” in a nod of recognition which I appreciated. Plus, it’s just too fun to watch frazzled men fail to explain the inexplicable to hardened policemen, while their harassed assistants/companions/friends try to make sense of the vigorous tirades.

A small-ish cast of minor characters, including a lovely ghost who shares Jackaby’s house and an ex-assistant who has been transformed into a “temporary waterfowl,” rounds out the story nicely. The police force contains a few men who break the skeptical brute model so common in these far-fetched detective stories. One young policeman, in particular, is remarkably understanding to Jackaby’s suspicions and catches Abigail’s interest right off the bat. (I was pleased to see that she didn’t fall for her eccentric employer after a day at his heels, which is so often the case when fictional ladies – usually written by men – meet such a figure.) Chief Inspector Marlowe isn’t a very inspired character: basically just a gruff-er Lestrade who doesn’t know how to behave when women faint. But there is an intimidating Commissioner to make procedures more tense, and even the bit-part jailer became memorable when he offers a bit of cake to the folks in custody. The judgmental women who keep rankling at Abigail’s life choices don’t add much to the story and come off as a half-hearted attempt to set Abigail apart from other women, which annoyed me. But, this being a mystery story, the characters who really matter are the detective duo and the various suspects. Abigail and Jackaby pulled their weight and kept me amused. And since the list of suspects/informants consisted of Banshees; small trolls; a mostly-invisible woman; a werewolf; and something even more horrifying, I was intrigued to find out how everyone fit into the deathly puzzle.

I also liked the setting: a fictional port town in snowy New England with plenty of ghosts and beasties hiding just out of sight. Jackaby’s office and lodging at 926 Augur Lane (oh, look, a street for supernatural detectives) had some nice little surprises hidden away. And I really appreciated the appearance of fairies, monsters, and spirits from various European traditions. Here’s hoping that if Jackaby gets a sequel (and I think it deserves one, though the mystery was solved to satisfaction by the end), we will meet some creatures from folklores in other parts of the globe, as well.

The plot would have been a fairly typical murder mystery if it weren’t for the unearthly bent. Predictable, but the twists were exciting just the same, thanks to the spooky tension. It’s not all nerves and murder in this book, though. The dialogue and funny mishaps along the way kept things jolly enough, except in instances when characters find themselves battling for their lives in the winter darkness. I spent more time chuckling at witticisms while I read than I did in white-knuckled suspense.

I recommend Jackaby most fervently to members of particular fandoms who want more of the same: outlandish one-liners, magical gadgetry, and charged banter. I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Ritter had exactly that audience in mind when he was writing the book. For those of us who can’t keep up with SuperWhoLock enthusiasms, but still like a bit of magical weirdness in our Victorian mysteries, Jackaby is a quick and amusing read. Fans of Neil Gaiman’s story “A Study In Emerald” will see parallels here, too. Like I said before, there’s nothing incredibly new to be found here, but Jackaby is a satisfying addition to that genre. I’m interested to see if we get to revisit New Fiddleham anytime soon.

Similar books which I’ve reviewed:

The Quick by Lauren Owen

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Constable & Toop by Gareth P. Jones

The Haunting Of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

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Reading vs. Research: Pirate Edition (and a reading list)

This is yer Captain speaking.  We’ll be taking a quick break from the folklore and fairy tales for this very important compendium of pirate and nautical literature I compiled a while ago.  I’ve attempted to make clear the distinction between books I read for fun and books which are research, but those lines keep crossing over themselves whenever I least expect it. This is by no means a complete list, but for anyone who wants to read some jolly swashbuckling tales or learn more about the Age of Sail, you might find something of interest.  Please comment with any recommendations, if you will!

One of two pirate shelves in my room.

As if my poor brain wasn’t taxed enough trying to keep books I just want to enjoy separate from books full of information I need to understand, there are certain times when I think I’m just reading something for fun, only to realize that I ought to be taking notes for a novel or story I’ve got in the works. And there are times when the opposite is true: I expect to learn a lot from a book and then I close it hours later having had a jolly time between the pages, but I’m no more educated than I was when I started. I’m going to try and explain this distinction using some of the books I’ve read or researched on the subjects of piracy and maritime history/adventure, because no time spent reading about scurvy knaves and mutinous plots is time wasted.

1. Black Jacks: African American Seamen In The Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster = RESEARCH

This book is full of exactly the sort of information I desperately needed to figure out for the Middle Grade novel I’m writing. The author did a phenomenal amount of research, and has peppered his facts and figures with some truly excellent anecdotes of brave seafaring escapes and daring (well deserved) rebellions. It’s an exciting book, but definitely a history text instead of a fast-paced narrative. I doubt I’ll end up reading every page of Black Jacks, as it’s due back at the library soon, but will probably end up skipping around to all the passages which talk about black pirates specifically. That being said, there are some history buffs, nonfiction readers, and salty souls out there who could probably get through this book as a weekend’s reading. It’s written well and super interesting, and I do heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in this most worthy of subjects. If my own word is not enough for ya’ (and why should it be? I want to steal boats for a living!), here’s an article about an inmate who was imprisoned for bank robbery, but got inspired by Black Jacks to work towards a goal of eventually becoming a sailor, as the sea had always called to him.

Source: Washington Post

My weather-beaten and unfeeling heart was warmed near to cooking when I saw that W. Jeffrey Bolster and Gregory White had kept in touch throughout his incarceration, and that this fellow sea-rover had realized his dream of freedom at last. Good stuff, eh? That’s one of the most uplifting true stories I’ve read in a while. Three cheers for books, for the sea, for Gregory White, and for the long list of Black mariners from centuries past who are getting attention at last! Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah!

2. Powder Monkey by Paul Dowswell = READING TURNED RESEARCH

I took this one off my nautical shelf after I finished reading Bird because I needed to get myself back into pirate-mode but I still wanted to get lost in some good children’s fiction. Powder Monkey is a novel for young people, though I’d not readily give it to any youngsters who are too faint of heart as it’s bloody and historically accurate in its grim portrayal of the 19th century Navy life. I thought this book would be a gripping adventure, and was thus prepared to get fully absorbed in the shipboard drama and perilous environment which I so adore in my favorite books about Naval sailing ships. Powder Monkey seemed like a Young Adult foray into a genre which boasts excellent historical fiction like Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin series. There were plenty of similarities, to be sure, but Powder Monkey wasn’t quite so up-to-snuff in the plot and character divisions. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. On the contrary, I had a great time reading it, despite the many gruesome sights our poor young hero must face as a pressed lad helping to man a cannon in a time of war. The thing is, I think that I liked Powder Monkey so much because I expend an unusual amount of brain power worrying about press gangs and trying to figure out how a sextant works or what disaster would have to befall a person to warrant a hook for a hand. These are not necessarily the concerns of every young scamp. What might have been a somewhat less-than-inspiring quest for entertainment turned into a really exciting two days of research. Once I stopped grumbling to myself about the thin plot and started admiring Dowswell’s portrayal of life aboard the Miranda – not an easy life for a lad – I was happy to read Powder Monkey all the way through. Some of those harrowing facts and descriptions will haunt me for a good long while. I just wouldn’t press the book on a kid who wasn’t already interested in learning about the age of sail.

3. Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer = READING

Just read this book, you lubbers, and you can thank me later. This is everything a YA novel about the age of sail should be. It does provide a fairly faithful picture of life for a wayward ragamuffin at sea, but the story and – most importantly – the characters are so good that you won’t want to put the book down for a moment even to find a pen or look something up on Wikipedia. I’ve written a longer review of Bloody Jack here and can assure you all that it’s one of my top fifteen favorite books of all time. The following two books in the Jacky Faber series, The Curse of The Blue Tattoo and Under The Jolly Roger are also excellent, though the series gets a little drawn-out from there. No matter! Jacky Faber is one of the best narrators in children’s fiction, and the sort of scallywag I wish I could be. I re-read this first book frequently whenever I’m missing Bar Harbor, and while it certainly gets me keen to write my own pirate book, I’d absolutely call what I do “reading” instead of “research,” because I’m usually clutching at my heart in a fit of emotion or laughing way too hard to get any real booklearnin’ done from these adventures. Go and find this book right now. Captain’s orders.

4. On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers = READING

I bought this book years ago, when the pirate novel I was writing at the time bore very little resemblance to the book I’m working on now. I wanted to have a supernatural bent to my own story at the time, and maybe include the ghosts of some pirates past. Years went by, I read many a book which included real historical figures as characters and sent hapless young protagonists back in time, and I eventually decided to toss those notions overboard. Maybe when I was trying to fit ghosts and magic spells into my own story, On Stranger Tides might have had some useful information in it. But while it is definitely a thrilling and swashbuckling romp, the details of the plot must be taken with a whole fistful of salt. For one thing, there’s voodoo and magic. I love me some voodoo and magic – in fact, I write about them all the time! However, it’s important that we remember that most pirates terrorized the shores and sea without the assistance of talismans or curses. Even as far as superstitions go, Powers has definitely adjusted the historical facts to suit his narrative. And why shouldn’t he? This is storytelling, after all! I liked the supernatural aspects of On Stranger Tides just fine, but would not take anything I discovered from the story as historical inspiration unless I’d found some other trustworthy sources. There’s also the weird inclusion of very real pirates in the totally fictional story, which might be fun for some readers but never failed to trip me up. Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, Jack Rackham, and several of my other heroes make cameo appearances in On Stranger Tides, and whenever I encountered one of them I always wondered, “but what were they actually doing on that particular Wednesday?” These were real live ladies and gents of fortune, and it’s perfectly fine to fictionalize their lives to enrich the plot of a novel, but that makes the novel good for entertainment purposes only.

5. Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities by Terry Breverton = RESEARCH

This handy encyclopedia contains “a miscellany of the sea and all things nautical,” and it’s been a stalwart companion while I write. A good friend gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago, in Scotland, and she clearly knew me better than I knew myself because I don’t know how I would get through a chapter without it, now. The entries are brief and fascinating; it’s not exactly a complete account of every fact ever associated with the sea, but provides excellent inspiration when I’m wondering, what nautical fact could I throw into this chapter to make it more…briny? Breverton’s collection contains a whole list of Pirate Haunts And Targets; explanations of how common phrases originated from shipboard life; tiny biographies of impressive sailors, including scores of sea-dogs I’d never heard of before; and very helpful explanations of weapons from the Age of Sail, which I have consulted many a time this month. The chapter I’m working on right now deals with weaponry and I’m completely baffled by the amount of Things Designed To Kill You which existed back then. So thanks, Terry Breverton, for making my research so easy to tackle! This book is invaluable to my own research, but I promise you it would make an excellent gift for anyone who likes sea stories and/or random curiosities. Pages and pages of fun facts, I tell you! Amuse and impress your friends, enemies, and that person next to you on the ferry with obscure histories about doomed warships and the etymological origins of sea-slang. Or just give them Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities and they can amuse and impress themselves…

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Other pirate books to read for fun:

Pirates! by Celia Reese – Good historical fiction and girls kicking butt!

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates by Caroline Carlson – A jolly adventure for younger readers.

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie – My favorite story in the history of stories.  Captain Hook is a classic.

Capt. Hook: Adventures of a Notorious Youth by J.V. Hart and illus. by Brett Helquist – Great twist on Captain Hook’s backstory.  Obstinate young scallywags causin’ all sorts of trouble.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – Another classic sea adventure.  Long John Silver is one of the best pirate characters in history.  I want to be him when I grow up.

Silver: Return To Treasure Island by Andrew Motion – I bought this in Edinburgh last year and still haven’t read it.  Once it’s summer I intend to re-read Treasure Island and then dive into this continuation.

A High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes –  Wildly under-appreciated novel about a pirate crew which ends up in charge of a bunch of children.  I get really excited about it here and even have it as one of my “staff picks” at the bookshop.

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton – Ridiculous but fun swashbuckling thriller.  Best taken with the same grains of salt as On Stranger Tides.

Other pirate books recommended for research:

If A Pirate I Must Be: The True Story Of “Black Bart”, King Of The Caribbean Pirates by Richard Sanders – I read this when I was in high school and Bartholomew Roberts has been one of my favorite pirates ever sense.  Entertaining story of an unbelievably cool captain.

The Republic Of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard – I think the subtitle says it all.  A rather sensationalized account of pirates and their enemies, but includes tons of great facts and talks about several important figures.

The Pirate Hunter: The True Story Of Captain Kidd by Richards Zacks – Whole book entirely about Captain Kidd, which was a gripping read but had tons of great information.  Helped me appreciate the sea shanty, too. 

Under The Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly – Real pirate adventures were sometimes even more bloody and thrilling than the myths Cordingly dispels.

A General History Of The Robberies And Murders Of The Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson (pseudonym) 1724. – Excellent contemporary account of real pirates written during the Age of Sail.  Shows how the world pirates lived in viewed them and profiles some Captains best not forgotten.  This book is still in print today.

Easy-to-read history books which mention some admirable pirates:

Famous Last Words by Jonathan Green – A morbid and entertaining collection of the last thing people said before they died.  Includes some great 18th century zingers as well as criminal’s last declarations before being executed, tragi-comical accidents, and some rather touching examples too.

Badass by Ben Thompson – An entire book devoted to famous badasses from history, written by the fellow behind badassoftheweek.com.  Naturally there are plenty of sword-weilding action heroes from the sea as well as land.  Includes Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, and Lord Nelson, amongst others.  You can read an old review I wrote of it here.

Princess Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie – Each chapter is about a princess from history who decided to lead thrilling lives of ill-repute.  Includes lady pirates and generally inspiring role models for every young lass who likes sporting a crown and a cutlass in equal measure.

There are plenty more books on the subject which I recommend, and infinitely more which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.  Only last week I was at a bookstore in Central Square which had a whole little section devoted to Nautical resources!  As you might imagine, my inner pirate capered throughout the shelves in jubilation.

2014-03-01 13.36.42

By the time I’m finished writing this damned book, I’m sure that there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of additions to this list.  Some books will be full of shocking facts, others with thrilling stories, and undoubtably some with appallingly bad writing.  To all of the above, I say huzzah!  Bring it all on, me hearties, because there’s a lot I still don’t know about seafaring life.  The only solution is to keep on reading.