‘Knife’ pits Jack the Ripper against Sher­lock Holmes’ creator

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - ZEST - By Chris Gray COR­RE­SPON­DENT Chris Gray is a writer in Hous­ton.

Over the years, Sher­lock Holmes and Jack the Ripper have squared off fre­quently in films, video games and a num­ber of nov­els. “A Knife in the Fog,” how­ever, lays the re­spon­si­bil­ity for solv­ing the no­to­ri­ous Whitechapel mur­ders not on Holmes but his creator, Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle.

Who, it must be said, had a lot of help.

Though he’s hardly the first to sug­gest this sce­nario, Bradley Harper’s de­but novel is a per­sua­sive ac­count of what might well have hap­pened dur­ing the three-year gap be­tween Doyle’s first Holmes novel, “A Study in Scar­let,” and 1890’s “The Sign of Four.” In gain­ing the kind of shoe­leather ex­pe­ri­ence that would prove in­valu­able in fu­ture Holmes sto­ries, the physi­cianturned-de­tec­tive and his col­leagues all but shout, “The game is afoot!”

Be­sides a com­mit­ted Sher­lock­ian, Harper is a re­tired U.S. Army pathol­o­gist, which adds fur­ther cred­i­bil­ity to his de­scrip­tions of the then­nascent field of foren­sic crim­i­nol­ogy. Nev­er­mind fin­ger­print­ing; think about how eas­ily these mur­ders might have been solved if Lon­don’s po­lice at the time un­der­stood how much ev­i­dence could have been pre­served sim­ply by not wash­ing a corpse be­fore an au­topsy was per­formed.

But hey, maybe the Ripper mur­ders would have con­founded even the lab rats of “CSI.” We may never know.

Much like Dr. Wat­son, Harper’s Doyle is a bit gruff, eas­ily abashed and some­what ob­tuse. Though not fully blind to the de­duc­tive arts, he is in need of much coach­ing. Sum­moned to Lon­don from his prac­tice in Portsmouth, he leaves his ex­pec­tant wife in the south of Eng­land at the be­hest of a pale, of­fi­cious gen­tle­man call­ing him­self Wilkins, per­sonal sec­re­tary to Prime Min­is­ter William Glad­stone.

Cit­ing his ad­mi­ra­tion for “A Study in Scar­let” and the PM’s sym­pa­thy for Lon­don’s work­ing girls, Wilkins of­fers Doyle a hand­some sum, as well as room and board at the posh Marl­bor­ough Club on Pall Mall, in ex­change for a month of his time to in­ves­ti­gate these shock­ingly bru­tal mur­ders with the ut­most dis­cre­tion.

Im­me­di­ately, the physi­cian ac­knowl­edges the Ripper case to be well beyond his self­pro­fessed fee­ble pow­ers of in­tu­ition and sug­gests he call on his men­tor and model for his hawk-nosed fic­tional de­tec­tive: Dr. Joseph Bell, the gal­lant, tac­i­turn Scot­tish sur­geon who also hap­pens to be at­tend­ing physi­cian when­ever Her Majesty is in res­i­dence at the royal re­treat of Bal­moral.

Agree­ing, Wilkins steers the duo to an­other re­mark­able real-life fig­ure: Mar­garet Hark­ness, au­thor (un­der the pseu­do­nym “John Law”) of the nov­els “Out of Work” and “A City Girl,” a free­lance jour­nal­ist cur­rently re­sid­ing in the same East End as the Ripper’s vic­tims, some of whom she knew. Hark­ness de­fuses the per­va­sive sex­ism of her era with in­ge­nu­ity, aplomb and sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion — of­ten by as­sum­ing the mas­cu­line al­ter ego of one “Mr. Pen­ny­worth.”

Though her call­ing lay else­where, she would have made a fine de­tec­tive; mer­ci­fully, Doyle is more or less able to keep his bud­ding crush on her at bay. Tak­ing a page from Du­mas, the trio chris­ten them­selves the Three Mus­ke­teers: Doyle as the guile­less Porthos to Bell’s worldlier Athos and Hark­ness’s per­cep­tive, con­flicted Aramis.

All for one and one for all, they set forth into the se­verely crowded slum of which, Doyle notes, “the con­sen­sus among the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Po­lice was that Whitechapel con­tained a level of vice and vil­lainy un­equaled in the Bri­tish Isles. I am ashamed to say I saw poverty and hu­man degra­da­tion on those streets that I did not know ex­isted in my na­tive land.”

On top of that, the “Leather Apron” mur­ders — so called be­cause some­one wear­ing such an ar­ti­cle of cloth­ing, a ne­ces­sity to many a Jewish trades­man, was seen shortly be­fore the first vic­tim was found — have turned the neigh­bor­hood into a sim­mer­ing caul­dron of anti-Semitism, which the po­lice ex­pect to boil over at any mo­ment.

“A Knife in the Fog” is as gory as any good Jack the Ripper tale should be. But for all the blood-and-gaslight at­mos­phere, for which Harper him­self con­sulted Ripper ex­pert Richard Jones, it might all be so much rote pen­ny­dread­ful fic­tion if not for some mem­o­rably crafted char­ac­ters.

The killer truly de­lights in his de­prav­ity and taunt­ing his pur­suers. Doyle’s earnest nar­ra­tion car­ries more than a lit­tle of Wat­son’s en­dear­ing clue­less­ness; Bell is ev­ery bit the in­tel­lec­tual equal of Holmes, al­beit with a much kinder dis­po­si­tion; and Hark­ness is a mag­nif­i­cently ren­dered proto-fem­i­nist at a time when such a call­ing was even more haz­ardous than it is to­day.

Even Mark Twain and Os­car Wilde man­age to work their way into the story. Harper’s novel will eas­ily whet read­ers’ seem­ingly eter­nal ap­petite for novel so­lu­tions to this most ghastly of Vic­to­rian mur­ders.

By Bradley Harper Seventh Street Books 288 pages; $15.95 (pa­per) ‘A Knife in the Fog’

Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle, rather than his cre­ation, Sher­lock Holmes, is en­listed to find Jack the Ripper in “A Knife in the Fog.”

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