Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco came out in September 2016, and I read it on November 23, 2016. It was a quick, fun read.
Audrey Rose Wadsworth is a woman ahead of her time. We meet Wadsworth in Victorian London just as the Jack the Ripper murders begin. After the loss of her mother turns her father into a bit of a despot, Wadsworth chooses to skirt convention and learn forensic sciences and is apprenticing under her doctor uncle. Here Wadsworth meets Thomas Cresswell – sarcastic, arrogant, brilliant, handsome – and who clearly delights in picking at Wadsworth. When the murders begin, Wadsworth, Cresswell, and her uncle are allowed to forensically examine the victims and as they investigate Wadsworth realizes that many of the victims have ties to her family. Wadsworth is connected to Jack the Ripper – the struggle is that there are too many suspects, and no way to stop the murders. AND she has to keep her good name, attend teas, and try not to get disowned by her father in the process.
This is weirdly a blend of Jack the Ripper mythology, a little bit Sherlock Holmes, and the story of Frankenstein all rolled into one. It’s curious that at the end of the novel, Wadsworth is headed to Romania. I’m hoping we get a unique telling of the Dracula story in the next book.
This is going to be difficult to review because it’s EXACTLY the kind of stuff I love, but 90% of it has been done before – an intrepid or unexpected investigator solving the Jack the Ripper murders, a Victorian woman bucking societal expectations. Everything felt familiar while I was reading it – like I was somehow reading many books at once that I’d read before and also watching Penny Dreadful. I don’t intend this as an insult – it was all the best parts of the best books, woven perfectly together into a ferocious story (I totally almost made a Frankenstein’s monster joke there about stitching together parts and restrained myself; you should appreciate that.) It’s familiar territory with some new landmarks. And Wadsworth and Cresswell are an addicting couple to follow.
Maniscalco’s biggest skill is her sensory detail – touch and scent particularly play a large role in setting her scenes well. I can’t always clearly envision what things look like, but her level of detail let’s me imagine how they feel, and how I would feel if I was there.
There’s somewhat of an attempt by other readers to make Cresswell a Sherlock – extraordinarily honed observations kills, a sociopath who struggles with emotions, who is cold and unfeeling excepting his attachment to his partner. I think that is such an inaccurate and incomplete vision of Cresswell. On the page, he is more than that, he is emotional and attached and shares his feelings. He is absolutely arrogant but it feels like a cover-up. It’s his shield in order to survive and that is very different than Sherlock. Sherlock doesn’t care what is conventional, where Cresswell overtly bucks it and knows he’s doing it. Knowing the rules of courting and interactions between men and women, every time Cresswell ignores this to flirt with or touch Wadsworth is exciting because it’s a blend of his innate reaction to her and his desire to flout the rules.
I saw the ending coming from about halfway through the book and spent a lot of time yelling (internally and out loud) at Wadsworth and Cresswell to figure it out sooner. Cresswell especially should have seen it long before he did in the novel, or at least suspected. I think he did, and if that’s the case then I’m really mad he didn’t even bother to tell Wadsworth his suspicions. The two made a deal not to lie, and I think he lied by omission. I honestly can’t tell if the intention was for the reader to figure it out before the characters, or if I just understand this genre so well that the pieces fell into place for me well ahead of the reveal.
This book is an adventure, and while it seems like a relatively slim novel, A LOT happens but it doesn’t feel rushed. I enjoyed following Wadsworth and seeing her struggle with finding a femininity that made her feel strong, while also not letting herself be diminished by the societal expectations on her gender. There is a heck of a lot of sass in Wadsworth – the best part of her character is that it’s not just responses in her head. What makes her different than similar protagonists is that while some things are done in secret, she tries to make changes and be different out in the open. She toes the line to a certain extent, but for the most part she’s forthright and forceful in disagreement. Wadsworth does not seethe quietly, she talks back and demands, or chooses to ignore.
My few real complaints unique to this novel (and not just the genre): I still don’t totally understand the character of Blackburn and Wadsworth’s response to him, and I find that very frustrating. While I don’t necessarily believe him to be trustworthy, I think it’s the one time Wadsworth was lying to herself or being dishonest about her perceptions and responses, even in her head, and it felt very un-Wadsworth to me. The sections with him read in a very clunky way. Second, I wish we’d gotten to see Cresswell’s family and not just heard about them, because I think it’s an important part of his story that will feel like a big old plot hole in the next book.
I am totally fan-girling the cuteness of Wadsworth and Cresswell. Which, because I am who I am, will override a lot for me. I didn’t need the plot to be groundbreaking because I could invest deeply in character rather than story, and I think these two DO have the potential to be something unique as their stories continue.
I’m giving Stalking Jack the Ripper a 3.5/5 for fun characters in an already known world, for pulling in Frankenstein mythology, and because I will definitely be buying the next book on release day.