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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Book Review of File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8+

Some of you may not know this, but underneath all the fairytale infatuations and my ambitions of piracy, I’m a Voracious, Fervently Devoted admirer of Mr. Lemony Snicket’s life and work. (Actually, you all probably worked that one out for yourselves. I’ve been quite vocal about my enthusiasm for The Basic Eight and Why We Broke Up, penned by his “representative” Daniel Handler.) When I was slogging through the dreary days of middle-school, A Series Of Unfortunate Events instilled within me an appreciation for all sorts of gothic literature and a keen eye for mysterious circumstances. Those books were also largely responsible for my inherent distrust of adults. It’s the sort of series you can re-read time and time again; and I find that every time I return to it I recognize some wonderfully distressing references to literature and life which had flown right over my young head, despite the fact that I was tall and gangly for my age.

Nowadays I get to be that cryptic adult in the bookshop who recommends mysterious literary material to intrepid young browsers. How convenient for my secret plans that Lemony Snicket did not stop writing after his first series brought so many readers to the brink of despair. Who Could That Be At This Hour? and When Did You See Her Last? are high on my list of recommended reading. With those books on the shelf, I’m rarely at a loss for something thrilling and hilarious to sneak into the hands of a diminutive detective-to-be.

Snicket’s newer series, All The Wrong Questions, chronicles the earlier life of young Lemony: his baffling past as a volunteer in that secret society which loomed in the periphery of the Baudelaires’ lives. The books are written in a style inspired by noir detective fiction. Think hard-boiled private eyes on their own in a hostile world; enigmatic women and shady men in hats all triple-crossing our embittered hero as well as each other. There are cunning nods to the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett scattered everywhere, alongside a myriad of references to classic fiction and highly recommended kids’ books.

The series traces a big, complex mystery through a town called Stain’d-By-The-Sea, where commerce is rapidly dying and something nefarious lurks just out of sight by every corner, bakery, and rocking chair shop. Lemony Snicket and his chaperone – an amusingly inept adult member of the secret society – are meant to solve a mystery involving a stolen statue, a desperate young woman, an aging actress, and a coffee shop containing a player-piano rather than baristas. It’s hard to find answers, though, when everyone insists upon asking all the wrong questions. In the end, the children have to figure things out on their own while most adults waste time and, as usual, completely ignore common sense.

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is sort of a supplemental volume in the series. It takes place in Stain’d-By-The-Sea sometime during the course of Snicket’s investigations, but does not necessarily need to be read at one particular point in the series’ chronology. Rather than adding to the larger mystery, these thirteen suspicious incidents appear in a collection of reported cases and separate conclusions. Each short chapter stands on its own. Sub File One contains the thirteen mysteries themselves, relayed to us in Snicket’s distinctive voice. For those of us who loved the deadpan and ironic – though somewhat formulaic – humor in A Series Of Unfortunate Events, these new books are not a disappointment. (Aside from the obvious disappointments, like how justice and root beer floats aren’t served nearly as often as they should be.) Sub File B contains the conclusions. When you’re done reading the book, count the conclusions. There are more than thirteen. Suspicious indeed! Each self-contained whodunits is somewhere between five and twenty pages long; perfect for puzzling over a story or six before bed, or while waiting for one’s parent to finish swearing at the hardware store cashier.

Characters from All The Wrong Questions filter in and out of the short cases, because in a good noir piece the locals and strangers are just as responsible for a mysterious atmosphere as the shadowy setting itself. The frustrating Mitchum family fails to prevent crimes all over the place. Moxie puts her reporting skills to use and helps Snicket now and then. Dashiel Qwerty, the punk-rock librarian, seems to know just the right book for any occasion. Jake, at the diner, serves banana waffles right when they’re needed most. Even though Snicket’s character is just a kid when he narrates the book, his descriptions of people are as cynical and case-hardened as any full grown P.I. in a black and white feature.

“Think of something noble and true, like a librarian or a a good crisp apple or a sweater that doesn’t itch, and then think of the opposite, and that’s Stew Mitchum. He was a rat and a nuisance and many other troublesome words I knew, the sort of person who might dump a whole shaker on your head if you asked him to pass the salt.”

We also encounter a long list of new characters, as most mysteries require culprits; and victims; and red herrings; and wrong turns. I particularly liked Jackie, the young mechanic who is never referred to by a gendered pronoun (and – huzzah – this is not at all self-congratulatory), and two friends named Kevin and Florence who share pirate books and also possibly secrets. Some mysterious strangers remain mysterious. Some seemingly-benign individuals turn out to be quite sinister, and some suspicious figures are actually just trying to get on with their regular routine. I think Dashiel Qwerty articulates the general theme of the collection quite well in the very last mystery, entitled “Figure In Fog.”

” ‘Look at it this way, Snicket,’ Qwerty said as the fog kept rolling across the grass. ‘To a stranger in town, such as yourself, Stain’d-by-the-Sea is full of suspicious incidents. But to the people of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, you’re a suspicious incident yourself. You arrived out of the blue and live in a hotel suite with an adult who seems to be neither your parent nor your guardian. You ask a lot of questions about anything and everything, and anyone and everyone has questions about you. There are rumors you’re part of a secret organization. There are rumors you are in charge of an important investigation. But nobody really seems to have the foggiest notion what you’re up to.’ “

I think this is an interesting observation to apply to any mystery story, hard-boiled or otherwise. As usual, Lemony Snicket makes more astute observations while writing serialized children’s fiction than many writers for grown-ups do in their whole oeuvre. These solve-it-yourself stories are great fun and very accessible to young readers, of course. They remind me of the Meg Mackintosh mysteries I loved as a child, in which I would always try to figure out the solution before the big reveal. But though I’m no longer quite youthful enough to start an apprenticeship like Snicket’s, my age never once prevented me from appreciating every one of the Suspicious Incidents. The mysteries themselves might be fairly simplistic, but the sharp, dry humor in nearly each description and every line of dialogue has no age limit in its appeal.

I hope that Snicket’s fans of fewer years might follow this series by hunting down some noir detective fiction for themselves, with the assistance of their devoted local booksellers and vigilant librarians. As for myself, and any other nearly-adult readers returning to Mr. Snicket’s world with an air of nostalgia, there are plenty of subtle riddles and literary clues to mull over all morning as one’s oatmeal congeals and the newspaper goes unread. (Another reason to wish we were eating breakfast at Jake’s diner.)

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is a highly entertaining casebook, but it’s also a clever and worthwhile addition to the chronicles of Stain’d-by-the-Sea and the intricate world Lemony Snicket shares with us all. The plot might not be so detailed, and the ironic twists and turns might get repetitive after some time, but the formula works and the book concludes before it descends into a tiresome exercise. In a town where everyone has a trick up their sinister sleeves – where even sled races and pet lizards aren’t as wholesome as they might seem – we can trust young Lemony Snicket to doggedly pursue answers to whatever suspicious incidents waltz his way, even if those answers just unearth more questions and an awful lot of dry seaweed.

Archived Review: The Earth Hums In B Flat by Mari Strachan

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on April 16, 2013

 

Characters: *****(4 Stars)

Character Development: **** (4 Stars)


Plot: *** (3 Stars)


Writing: **** (4 Stars)


Overall: **** (4 Stars)


Age range recommendation: 16 +

I read this book in two sittings, so it’s clearly got plenty of excellent qualities. I love child-detective stories, especially when those intrepid youngsters are the protagonists of adult novels and, therefore, their deductions about the complex world around them can be completely off track, often to hilarious or poetically tragic results. Despite Gwenni’s tender age of twelve, The Earth Hums in B Flat is about a grown up mystery: yes, there’s a disappearance and death and useless police officers, but the real plot revolves around the little mysteries which flourish in silence to engulf families and entire towns. Our odd little heroine narrates the novel in first person, providing an endearing perspective on events which might be only depressing, rather than intriguing, if they were reported through a more down-to-earth point of view.

Gwenni’s home life is difficult with an unstable mother and a cruel sister; her best friend and she are growing apart as they disagree about the importance of boys vs. magic plans; and to top it all off the intimidating father of two children she takes care of has disappeared, pursued by a mysterious “black dog.” Mr. Ifan Evansdisappearance causes little ruptures in the every day order of Gwenni’s small Welsh town, and when she decides to take matters into her own hands like the detectives in her books, she uncovers more secrets than answers and learns that some stones are best left unturned. The Earth Hums in B Flat is an easy and delightful read, and I enjoyed watching Gwenni’s observations about human nature develop from naivety to somber comprehension without ever losing the innocent edge which make the betrayals of the real world even more poignant. It’s not an uplifting story, though, so while fans of The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie by Alan Bradley will enjoy the similar narrative style, don’t expect an up-front story where the murderer is evil and a clever child’s perseverance necessarily prevails. The family in The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie is dysfunctional in an amusing way; but the families in Gwenni’s town are just plain messed up. There are a few intriguing minor characters, and the setting – a Welsh-speaking village in the 1950s – is seamlessly described to create a unique stage for story’s events. Some elements of social awkwardness around language, war, and class are seamlessly woven into the small-town plot, placing the story in a wider context which should appeal to anyone with an interest in British cultural history.

While I found the writing to be captivating and the characters compelling, there were a few things about The Earth Hums In B Flat which left me feeling a little let down once I reached the novel’s end. Namely, the end of the novel itself. While I was prepared for a pessimistic ending – meaning, I knew that this was not the sort of mystery which would end with peace for the village, justice for all, and due credit going to the amateur detective – I can’t help but feel that Mari Strachan could have let Gwenni receive a little more credit for the hardships she experiences at the hands of her mother and the small minded town. Some characters were sympathetic and kind, especially her memorable grandmother and absurdly saint-like father, but many of the people who made her life difficult never really get their just deserts. Of course, this is how the world works: a child might be in the right, but those who were wrong might never admit or even realize their faults.

Life isn’t fair, and although the unfairness of this novel left me feeling unsatisfied, I can see that it was an important element in the book’s message. Strachan is honest about how ignored young people can feel, how adults never listen even when they should, and this is a point made time and time again in children’s books but not nearly enough in fiction aimed at adults. There’s nothing wildly inappropriate here, some domestic violence and intimated deviancy, but younger readers might be disappointed by The Earth Hums in B Flat because the plot is driven by subtle relationships rather than action, and the writing expects that readers would have passed the point in their lives when they thought like Gwenni does. We must be able to see where she’s mistaken in her judgement to understand the story’s full scope. I enjoyed this book – it was the perfect cure to a day of feeling generally unwell – and I’d recommend it to someone who wanted an absorbing and self-contained story, a mystery which doesn’t follow the patterns we’ve come to expect, and a reminder of how magical life can be when you’re young and how strange it is when life fails to meet your fantasized expectations.