Tag Archives: Jack the Ripper

The Black Country by Alex Grecian

the Black CountryPeople who own stock art of foggy Victorian landscapes with ominous men in hats must be making a fortune due to this surge in recent Victorian era historical fictions.  Here’s another one! This is a sequel to the book I reviewed earlier this year, The Yard. I believe this will be an ongoing series.

To refresh your (and my) memory, The Yard is about the first real homicide department in existence.  It takes place soon after Jack the Ripper haunted London’s streets, and deals with truly heinous crimes, the gritty city at its worst, and the beginnings of forensic science.  There are a lot of peripheral characters, but a few main characters.  Walter Day leads the new murder squad, and Nevil Hammersmith is his second-in-command, and Dr. Kingsley is their one-man CSI unit.  Day straddles the line between a middle class existence and a living earned in the foulest places you can imagine. Hammersmith was raised in a coal mining village (he happily escaped) and is routinely drugged or knocked unconscious.  Kingsley is your typical Holmes-esque forensic expert. More comfortable with the dead than the living, devoted to science, a bit lacking in tact.

These three main characters are transplanted from their London homes for this sequel, set in the eponymous Black Country, aka the west Midlands.  This is the area around Birmingham, a little past halfway between London and Liverpool. Instead of the bustling London city with its heinous East End slums and glamorous Hyde Park apartments, the three of them are looking for a missing family in a tiny coal mining town, precariously perched on top of those same mines.  Every building in the place is in constant danger of toppling into the ground. Every person is hiding something, is superstitious and secretive, is overwhelmed with a bleak and destitute life.

A husband, wife, and their young child have been missing a few days time when the officers arrive.  The couple’s remaining children have something to hide, but we know not what.  Someone drug’s Constable Hammersmith (not the first time). A mysterious illness has sprung up in town and infected the majority of the townspeople.  An old wives’ tale about ‘Rawhead and Bloody Bones’ has convinced the citizens of Blackhampton that evil lurks in their mist. The Londoners dismiss it as tosh, until Walter Day sees a man with half his cheek missing, his teeth visible through the side of his face.

Like The Yard, this isn’t an overcomplicated book. It’s a mystery, easy breezy and interesting.  I think the pace was a little slower, which meant it took me a bit longer to finish.  But there were enough red herrings and multiple plot lines to keep me interested.  The scenes are very readable; it’s never too taxing.  On the other hand, there were a few flaws.  For one thing, just as with the Yard, I figured out the answer to the mystery with 40-50 pages left to go.  That’s a long time to slog through when you already know what’s happened.  There was one surprise at the very end, but for the most part I was not surprised by whodunnit.

Another problem is that a lot of the scenes described were very physical–lots of searching through forests or mines, or scenes of sifting through a destroyed building.  There’s nothing wrong with writing scenes like that, but I had a very hard time picturing the action in my head.  Alex Grecian is a comic book writer, which means he hasn’t had to rely on describing action in the past.  That may be why his descriptions weren’t always clear enough for me to grasp.  I found it bothersome just because if you can’t picture the thing in your imagination, it takes you out of the action. I tried to read through again to get a better handle on those scenes, but it didn’t work. I just wasn’t given enough information to construct the physical place in my head.

Finally, there were a few plot pieces that never got tied up.  One of the local police officers is killed soon after the Londoners arrive, and there’s hardly a mention of him again.  Once or twice, people inquire after his whereabouts, but that’s it.  No one finds his body, no one seems inordinately worried about him or why he isn’t assisting with the investigation. I found this bothersome. I expected his body to be found at the end, or some other bow to be wrapped around that storyline, but it was just left that way.  Similarly, no mention at the end of what will/does happen to the legions of sick townsfolk. But it’s a series…maybe that will be addressed in the next one?

There’s an American man involved in all this, and we see his history, we see why he’s there, we see him die, but we never find out his name or his story.  Maybe Alex Grecian didn’t think it was particularly important, but I was bothered by the lack of information. There are snippets about him, but after he died I was expecting some revelation about his identity, and nothing came. Nor did we learn much about the man he was trying to kill. I wanted more info!

Compared to The Yard, the Black Country has a pretty miserable ending. A lot more people die, a lot more people are swallowed by grief during the course of the book. It’s darker. Pretty incredible, considering the Yard dealt with male bodies being found in trunks at the train station. The books are a light read, but the subject matter is nowhere near light.

Coal miner towns are such an amazing thing to think about, particularly back in the pre-union times of the 19th century.  I can’t imagine a worse existence, particularly when you consider the fact that people still go down there.  But back in the 19th century, children were down there, men, women, ponies, canaries.  Everyone.  For incredibly long shifts for criminally low wages.  No chance to ever escape that life.  It had never occurred to me that the coal mines, the tunnels they dug, would actually endanger the towns and structures above. It makes sense, obviously, but the idea of the entire town plunging slowly into a sinkhole and the residents casual acceptance of that fact…is hard to comprehend. I’ve read some other things about coal mining towns, particularly by Dylan Thomas, and those accounts can be incredibly moving. This book didn’t aspire to that level of grim realism about the people in those situations, but I think it missed the mark a little even with modest expectations.  It seems more like a 21st-century story transplanted to the past (a mystery is much easier without cell phones and heat sensors) than a story grown from that era.  Understandable, but not all historical fiction has to be that way.  Stories can seem at home in the past.  Mark Twain wrote about King Arthur’s Court, Charles Dickens wrote about the French Revolution.  Someone who understands human nature can put themselves in the shoes of everyone, present or past.  It might be bizarre, it might be difficult, but it’s possible.  With this book it just wasn’t really done.  With The Yard, I think I had almost the identical problem. The difference between the two is that the Black Country seemed a little more tedious to me, and a little less satisfying at the end.  I’m hoping the next one will be back in London, and will be a bit faster-paced.

Also, as I pointed out in my review of the Yard, a bobby actually says ‘wot’s all this then??’ while approaching a crime scene.  Anxious not to let down every stereotype we Americans have of the British police, Grecian has had another bobby say it in this book.  I mean, really?  Did Grecian get his copper talk from this list of stock British phrases? Cor, blimey!

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Ripper Street Season 1

Ripper Street cast

Last week was the season finale of Ripper Street on BBC America, after a short 8-episode season. In the UK, it ended in February. The show has already been picked up for a second season to air in early 2014.

As I mentioned in my review of Whitechapel (here), this Jack the Ripper theme stuck to a traditional police procedural is a bit overdone and not very sufficient to make a show good or memorable or necessary.  That being said, I decided to give it a shot. It does take place in Victorian London–my favorite place and my favorite time.  That alone is reason to watch.

The show focuses mainly on Inspector Reid, played by Matthew Macfadyen. Inspector Reid

Reid is the standard good guy, walking the line between being a gentleman and doing what it takes to solve the terrible crimes he encounters in the grimy and rough East End.  The show takes place a mere six months after Jack the Ripper’s last victim is found (1889).  Reid was one of the inspectors on the case, and it left him emotionally stunted and physically scarred.  He’s lost his daughter under mysterious circumstances, and that has caused an extreme rift between he and his wife.  His life is mysterious at first, with bits revealed throughout the first series to explain who and what he is.  I like Matthew Macfadyen, so I was predisposed to like Reid.  As a character, however, there are things that really bother me about him.  He neglects his wife and then is unfaithful.  Worst of all, he seems to exist as a thinking man and employs his faithful sergeant to do the dirty work of policing.  Of course, just like Copper, the show exists in an era well before the police were required to protect and not harm suspects and witnesses. Brutality was a way to accomplish their goals.  On the other hand, if you’re going to have a character who believes this behavior is warranted, it’s a little uncomfortable to watch him require his second-in-command to shoulder the burden of brutality.

The second-in-command is Sergeant Drake, an ex-soldier with the appearance of a thug, but he proves himself an honorable man.  He becomes smitten very early on with a local prostitute named Rose:

Drake and RoseDrake is very good at exacting information and subduing suspects through brute physical force, but that doesn’t mean he should be used for that alone.  He was in the Boer War in Africa, and has horrific memories of being a man prone to and enjoying violence–memories he is trying to run away from.  Of all the people in the show, he is the most afraid of violence and simultaneously the one forced to utilize it in his work.  Knowing this about him makes Reid’s reliance on Drake as an enforcer all the more repugnant and…there’s something class-ist about it.  Reid treats Dr. Jackson as an equal, but Drake as an inferior.  Drake is inferior to him at the police station, but their relationship seems to be predicated on social class and not career standing.  I did not like that fact, and it made me not like Reid because of it.

Dr. Jackson is known as ‘the American’ by most of the characters.  He has a suspicious past, is married to a woman who runs a local brothel, and seems to be a pioneer in the art of the autopsy:

Homer Jackson and Susan HartHe is Reid’s medical adviser, performing autopsies and necropsies. He acts as a one-man CSI lab, despite the limited technological advances inherent to a show set 130 years ago. He has a very mysterious past–the first thing we learn about him is that he has something to hide.  Later, it is revealed that he is using a false name, running from the Pinkertons (19th century private police force in the US), and has committed a serious crime.  Reid protects Jackson from being discovered by his enemies, but at the same time uses this information to force Jackson into continuing his work for the police.  It makes me think that Reid is just obsessive about solving cases, and all of his other values take a backseat to this need to find out whodunnit.

The show is very violent and regularly contains extremely graphic scenes, either of murder or sex or both.  The very first episode was about the making of the first snuff film.  The show makes it very clear that we’re living in a world with evil and with very little good.  There are no heroes to be found; everyone is flawed and many are downright monsters.

Reviews have been fairly mixed. Critics are especially irritated by the anachronisms.  I am currently writing a Victorian-era historical fiction novel, and feel a shiver of dread thinking about the websites that might crop up over my mistakes.  It’s simply very difficult to think about every piece of clothing, every word or idiom, every bit of food, and to research whether said item was available/used/known in that time period.  Then again, I would hope the BBC would have better resources than I do–my current resources include Google and a library card.  A Guardian column discussed the outlandish crimes committed during the running of the first series and where they had historical precedent. More of them were accurate than I would have guessed.

I’m still deciding my final opinion of the show. The first 2-3 episodes were incredibly dull and took a lot of work to get through.  It picked up at the end, with the last 1-2 episodes being pretty tolerable…but those first 2-3 episodes make up a large chunk of the season. So I’m not sure it’s worth the effort for the 1-2 good episodes at the end.

The acting is good and parts of each episode were truly enjoyable.  At the same time, the show was never great (in my opinion).  I was never enraptured, even when I was interested.  It also didn’t feel true to the period. It didn’t transport me to a different time, it felt more like I got off the bus in a bad neighborhood.  But I liked the characters, and I did feel for them.  I did become invested, especially in Drake and Jackson.  I will be tuning in for next season, despite mixed feelings.  I just hope they drop the Jack the Ripper stuff and deal with other types of crime and realities of living in that time and that place.

TV Show Review: Whitechapel

Whitechapel tv series

Preparing for the premiere of the new period drama Ripper Street, BBC America recently aired the entirety of a similar series: Whitechapel.

Both series use the name of Jack the Ripper to place their shows within a rich history of mystery, of horrific crime, and of a specific place in London. Whitechapel is a small area of London, NE of the Tower of London. It’s pretty unremarkable when you consider all the things that have happened during the course of London’s history (see my post on Boris Johnson’s Life of London), but it is known world-wide because of Jack the Ripper, and because of all the things that changed for modern society, for the press, and for police work during the one year that Jack the Ripper terrorized the neighborhood.

It has been almost 150 years since Jack the Ripper committed his crimes, but he is still the best known serial killer in the world, and a source of endless fascination and theoretical postulating. So both of these shows are anchoring their (relatively standard) police dramas to the J-t-R myth in order to draw in viewers.  The problem inherent in this strategy is that after you talk about Jack the Ripper, almost every other case and every other villain is going to be anticlimactic.

Whitechapel was first broadcast in the UK in 2009 (US in 2011), and has had three seasons (series) so far. A fourth season is set to premiere in the UK this year.

This is a modern police procedural, but it attempts to draw a line between past crimes and current ones.  The first season is 6 episodes, all following a Jack-the-Ripper copycat. The main characters include:

Whitechapel-tvseries characters

DI Chandler (middle): The OCD new leader of the schlubby old-school homicide detectives in Whitechapel. Much of the show is devoted to his relationships with the other detectives, and his own neuroses. Played by the very posh Rupert Penry-Jones

DS Miles (left): This character is played by Phil Davis, who I recognized immediately as the murderer/cabbie from the very first episode of Sherlock. While watching that episode, I remember thinking that this guy was a great actor, so I was thrilled to see him in something else.  He plays Chandler’s second in command, and the two often butt heads on how to manage the other detectives and how to pursue cases.  But he is a very human character and fulfills a void left because of Chandler’s lack of connection with others.

Edward Buchanon (right): Edward is a Ripper-ologist during the first series, lending his expertise to the search for the copycat.  After that, the idea the show takes is that current crimes can be compared to older crimes and historical information can help to point police in the right direction. While this might be true on a large scale (e.g. knowing that women are more likely to kill by poisoning), I fail to see how comparing one specific modern crime to one specific historical crime can be considered accurate. There has to be a reason why the modern crime would happen in the same way as the historical crime. You can’t just assume a correlation!  At any rate, Edward manages the historical archives and offers his advice based on these historical data.

The first series, as I said, deals with a Jack the Ripper copycat.  I found this series the most exciting, and was let down when the following series dealt with the legend of the Kray brothers.  Their fame has not quite reached this side of the pond, so I had no connection with them.  In the third series, instead of focusing the entire 6-episode arc on one villain, there were three two-part episodes. I think this worked a bit better.  The last villain in particular, called the Mantis, was pretty scary.

I think season 2 was the low point for me, but it started to recover in season 3. DI Chandler’s OCD continues to plague him and his relationships with his fellow policemen are strained and rearranged due to his emotional problems.  Often, people with OCD are portrayed on TV in humorous or quirky ways (e.g. Monk) and it was interesting to see someone in a more serious role with this affliction.  It wasn’t humorous at all.

Miles and Chandler are full-fledged characters, but everyone else fades easily into the background. I could only name one other character on the show. That’s not the mark of good writing.

Plus, do we really need another police procedural? Is this different enough from CSI, Law and Order, Copper, etc. etc. etc.  Probably not.  So if we don’t need Whitechapel, do we need Ripper Street?

Ripper Street

Ripper Street premiered a few weeks ago in the UK, and in the US shortly after.  I’ll withhold judgment until I watch at least the first series.  Unlike Whitechapel, it is a period drama, taking place in 1889 in Whitechapel.  From what I can tell, it’s Copper in London.  I have hope for it because I do love Matthew Macfayden.  But I hope that attaching the Jack the Ripper name to the series isn’t the only thing they’ve done to make it more than your average cop show.

From the book section: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

This book is a book lover’s treasure.  It’s not written by a British author; Palma is Spanish, I believe. But the book is very British, in my opinion. It is set in England, in 1896, and many of the characters featured walk straight out of English history. I love love love historical fiction, and am particularly smitten with the late 19th century. This was ideal for me, obviously.  And what other book has H.G. Wells, Bram Stroker, Henry James, fake time travel, real time travel, and Jack the Ripper?

The novel contains three intertwined stories, all different, all wonderful.  Some questions posed in the first story are not answered until the end, but they are all eventually answered in wonderful and unexpected ways.

I loved everything about this book, from the amazing packaging Simon & Schuster put together:

to the fact that it absolutely avoided genre conventions and cliches. I am normally pretty alert to the conventions of whatever book I happen to be reading, and am able to guess fairly accurately what will or will not happen.  70% through this novel, I was still unsure whether it was entirely based in reality or had elements of the fantastical within.  Each story was a surprise and something novel. That’s rare nowadays, to be honest. I heard from someone at S&S that Palma’s idea regarding these stories was to imagine the impact a particular novel (in this case, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells) has on society and culture in its time. I think that’s a really cool and unique way of approaching the value of literature and it’s very real effect on its world.

I can’t say enough about my enjoyment of the book. It was a delight to read. I was sold with the premise, but also really loved the prose. It was simple, but not minimalistic, and definitely engaging and active in a way I find hard to describe. It was an adventure to read. I am honestly not sure whether to attribute this style to Palma or to his translator. I often wonder how much of the credit should go to the unsung heroes (or villains) that translate foreign works.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for example, was pretty terrible, in my opinion. I enjoyed the movies much more than the book, and I wonder how much of that has to do with the translation. But that’s a separate diatribe, so I will keep to my praise of the book at hand.

I cannot stress how much I love it when books are about books, or about writing. Palma has sprinkled in bits about Wells writing his novels, about his process and his feelings regarding his works. We even get a sense of how Stoker and James worked and lived around literature. As an aspiring writer, I adore these glimpses, fictional or not, into the world of famous writers.

In short, I loved this book. I’ve heard rumblings of two more, and in doing a search online it seems that the second one was published a few weeks ago in Spanish. It’s called El Mapa Del Cielo or The Map of the Sky.  But I don’t read Spanish nearly well enough to read a full-length novel in it. So hopefully Atria, or someone, will pick up the American or UK rights to the second one soon and I’ll get to experience more of Palma’s stories.