“Monsters are easy, Miss Rook. They’re monsters. But a monster in a suit? That’s basically just a wicked man, and a wicked man is a more dangerous thing by far.”
Boarding school runaway Abigail Rook steps off the Lady Charlotte onto the docks of New Fiddleham with one suitcase to her name, and no job prospects to speak of. In the New England of 1892, there is not much in the way of respectable employment for unaccompanied seventeen-year-old girls. Fortunately for Abigail, there is nothing respectable about R.F. Jackaby, private investigator of supernatural crimes. When Abigail answers his advertisement for an assistant, she finds herself pulled into the investigation of a series of grisly murders. Though the police steadfastly insist on a mundane explanation, Jackaby suspects something more unusual is afoot, but his lack of official standing hampers the investigation. Given Jackaby’s preternatural preoccupations, Abigail’s grounded perspective and eye for detail prove invaluable as they attempt to track the killer with the surreptitious assistance of Junior Detective Charlie Cane.
In the fall of 2014, Jackaby garnered a lot of buzz thanks to publicists characterizing this title as “Doctor Who meets Sherlock,” a bold claim that appears right on the cover flap of the book. In the Doctor Who meets Sherlock schema, Abigail is simultaneously the Doctor’s companion, and Sherlock’s Watson, creating a written record of her first case with Jackaby. Jackaby certainly has the Doctor’s frenzied energy, and Sherlock’s lack of interest in social graces. He even has a signature chapeau, though his lumpy woolen toque is decidedly less dashing than a deer stalker. Of course, William Ritter didn’t set out to write Wholock, though the story does slyly acknowledge its debt to Arthur Conan Doyle when Abigail asks “you’re like whatshisname, aren’t you?” when Jackaby attempts to deduce where she came from. Despite the aptness of the publicist’s comparison, Jackaby ultimately has to stand on its own after name-checking two big series that are bound to set high expectations among fans.
Jackaby is set in the late nineteenth century, but the historical setting is less than fully realized, mostly providing a largely inconsequential backdrop. The period setting is actually most relevant in terms of the development of Abigail’s character, since she has run away from school and the expectations foisted in her by her gender. Despite a clear intent towards a feminist bent with Abigail’s independent character, Jackaby falls into one of the same traps that frequently ensnares Doctor Who. Any time Abigail is alone with either of the two significant female supporting characters—Jenny and Hatun—it is almost certainly to discuss Jackaby. As in Doctor Who, this makes for a good device for exposing the character of the mysterious Jackaby, but leaves much to be desired in terms of the development of relationships between, and characterization of, female characters.
Fast-paced and plot-driven, Jackaby feels very much like a pilot episode in that the focus is on setting up the conceit and then following the case-of-the-week. The characters have only barely begun to develop, and there is much we still don’t know about them. The mystery isn’t overly difficult, but Jackaby’s charm and witty banter are quite capable of carrying the story along between times. And although the historical setting plays little role, Jackaby’s extraordinary house at 926 Augur Lane has all the character and detail that New Fiddleham lacks. Fortunately, Jackaby is intended to begin a series rather than stand alone, and volume two, Beastly Bones, is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2015.
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