by Madison Kent
I have mixed feelings about this book. The prologue was pure info dump and there were many signs of an amateur writer; shoehorning too many subplot lines into the first chapter, showing a limited knowledge of Victorian convention, dialect, British English or proper use of apostrophes, yet the writing was strangely engaging and I took a liking to the main character, Madeleine, early in the story.
Madeleine Donovan is a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and fancies herself an amateur sleuth. She lost her family in tragedy and in the process of looking for purpose, travels to London. All the papers are full of stories about Jack the Ripper and a group of English ladies whom she meets shipboard become concerned about a niece who has gone wayward in Whitechapel and could be in danger. Madeleine vows to find her, despite the danger.
The premise is actually rather unlikely in Victorian England and the author uses American English for English character's dialogue, but the story itself is engaging and I ignored the occasional cringe and let myself enjoy the story. I think a few words didn't mean what the author thought they meant and the idea of finding bourbon in a 19th century Whitechapel pub just boggles the mind, especially contrasted with an almost encyclopedic history of the nationalities and religions of people who settled in the area shoehorned into a conversation, but I liked the main character and with Alternative History being a popular genre these days, I started treating this as Fantasy and ignored anomalies like decent women casually going out for a drink in a pub in that era.
Of all the things technically wrong with this novel, the thing that bothered me most was the attempt to have lower class characters talk in dialect. It read like something out of the hills of Arkansas rather than anywhere in all the history of England. Old ladies wearing pillbox hats (invented in 1930) in 1888 London pales by comparison. Other dialogue was sometimes stilted too. Yet despite all the historical inaccuracies and other problems, the characters were brought to life skilfully and the plot moved along in a way that kept me interested.
The editorial mistakes increased later in the book, yet the story itself took on relevance, looking into issues of obsession and addiction in a Victorian setting where opium use was rife. Madeleine is a headstrong character and I found it easy to feel sympathy for her, yet she walks into trouble on many levels and I felt needed rescuing from her own impulses.
I actually liked the way the story ended. The explanation of what happened to Jack the Ripper was as plausible as any of the popular theories and there was a wonderfully poetic passage about the way London leaves its mark on a person's soul. Just before the poinsettias all bloom in November English weather (poinsettias are native to Mexico and an old association with Christmas travelled to America when the plants were first cultivated in the U.S. in the early 1900s, long after this story takes place. The tradition never travelled to England and the plants don't survive in under 58 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Apparently there is a series and Madeleine becomes a female detective in her native Chicago, but the ripper's story is finished so I won't be following the other books. Perhaps someone who likes detective stories would enjoy them. Hopefully they'll be set in America where the language and cultural references will fit!