July 7, 2009

Book review: "Dust and Shadow," by Lyndsay Faye

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Dust and Shadow, by Lyndsay Faye
Dust And Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson
By Lyndsay Faye
Simon & Schuster / ISBN: 978-1-41658-330-1

As I've mentioned here before, I'm one of the millions out there with an obsessive love for the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, originally the product of Victorian genre author Arthur Conan Doyle but that has since passed into the public domain, which now that anyone can write stories concerning has created in our modern times an entire "Holmesian" cottage industry of new tales, some of which are unofficially "blessed" by the Doyle estate and some of which aren't, not for legal reasons but to increase those stories' stature in the eyes of the buying public. (And in fact if you want a concrete, easy-to-see example of why it's so important that copyrights be held to a realistic timeframe, and why corporations shouldn't be allowed to own the rights to characters until the end of time, just look at all the detective projects in the last few decades that have exhibited Holmes-like characteristics [most recently, for example, the popular dark comedy Monk], and how all these shows would've been sued into non-existence if the official rights to Sherlock Holmes were still owned by, say, Viacom or Time-Warner. All modern stories share at least some traits with the older stories that came before them, which is why it's so important that these older stories eventually fall back into the public domain after the authors and their families have died, so that culture will have a chance to grow and expand in the first place, instead of stagnate into an endless series of empty, exactly-repeating "authorized remakes" of all the stuff that already exists, like is happening more and more in our corporate-dominated days. Whew, sorry, soapbox digression over!)

I just finished one of the newest Holmesian tales out there, in fact, Lyndsay Faye's unbelievably great Dust and Shadow, which very much does carry the symbolic seal of approval from the official Doyle estate, not the least of which is because of taking on a hypothetical question that Holmes fans have been dreaming of ever since the stories were first being published -- that is, what if the World's Greatest Detective had tackled the real-life "Jack The Ripper" murders, which really did happen in London in the same late-1800s period that the fictional Holmes was supposed to have been an active detective there? It's a question that presents all kinds of creative opportunities, and here Faye just delivers and delivers and keeps on delivering, turning in an astonishingly entertaining book almost steampunkish in its fantasticality, yet just enough grounded in the real world to not offend the sensibilities of those simply into Victoriana. It skirts a thin line sometimes to get there, granted, and there are moments when the story's credulity comes close to tearing at the seams (and of course if you're not a fan of Victorian literature in the first place, the entire project in general will give you a case of eye-rolling so severe as to warrant a hospital trip); but rest assured that the author eventually pulls the convoluted tale off by the end in spades, even more remarkable given that this is the young New York actress's literary debut.

And indeed, how is it even possible to think of either Sherlock Holmes or Jack The Ripper without automatically thinking of the other? Certainly, news of both were being delivered to original Victorian-Age readers at the same time, sometimes side-by-side in their daily papers and weekly periodicals; the latest fictional escapades from the haughty, logic-obsessed antihero, the latest true atrocities from the monstrous yet brilliant psychopath (the very man who inspired the term "serial killer"), both of them heavily informed by the rapid advancements in science and psychology at the time, both of their stories shrouded in the dark, smoky mist of a pre-electric London, both of them dependent on the crime-filled back alleys of the city's worst neighborhoods in order to accomplish their aims. It's just natural to want to bring these two archetypes together, something that Holmes fans have been doing in their heads for over a hundred years now; and in fact, given that the development of Holmes' character was heavily influenced by the actual events going on in Doyle's lifetime, it should come as no surprise that their milieus should so neatly match up.

Now combine this with what has turned in recent years into a whole cottage industry of its own, the obsession among so many modern true-crime fans in actually trying to solve the Ripper case, which for those who don't know has by now inspired hundreds of books and a dozen informed websites; and you can see why this might be the most perfect moment in history for someone to finally bring these cottage industries together into one giant uber-cottage industry. In fact, in what is sure to be a relief to all you Ripperologists out there, Faye herself starts out on the factual side with her own story, first laying down a narrative that pulls together all the undisputed details we now know about the cases; or that is, I'm not exactly an expert myself, but at least all the strange little details found here (the exotic grapes, the anti-Semite chalk graffiti) match up precisely with the only other detail-obsessed Ripper book I've ever read, Alan Moore's From Hell which was reviewed here last year. It's only then that Faye starts shoehorning in the Holmesian elements of the story, changing the details on the detective-side of the tale to complement the true facts of the Ripper murders, never the other way around; but like I said, "shoehorn" is too harsh a term here, in that the usual tropes of a Sherlock Holmes story actually match quite perfectly on their own with the real facts of the Ripper case.

And thus do you end up with a perfect hybrid of a book, which can be enjoyed in two different ways by two entirely different sets of people; it is not only a speculative nonfiction account of what Faye thinks happened during the Ripper murders, told through an inventive narrative format, but it's also a ripping Holmes pastiche that happens to have an extra-gory plotline, something as spectacular and melodramatic as any of the fictional Holmesian tales written over the decades. Because make no mistake, Faye gets in all the well-known beats that we "Baker Street Irregulars" demand in our Holmesian pastiches, which is what makes the genre in the first place so popular to try but so difficult to pull off: it is outlandish but not too much so; relies on a series of exotic costumes and locations; makes great use of Holmes' observational deduction of the world around him; is sure to play on Holmes' habit of doing morphine when bored, so to slow his freakishly fast brain down to normal human speed (with crime-solving being the only other thing besides dope to have this effect, one of the many tragically fascinating quirks about the character that makes us fans obsessive ones); and as is becoming more and more popular these days (although with its roots all the way back to the original Doyle tales), features a female with all the cunning and powers of Holmes himself, and who the notorious sociopath shares an uneasy mix of respect and sexual tension with throughout the book.

And thus does the majority of Dust and Shadow tick along in this fashion, with Faye building her case more and more over who she believes Jack The Ripper really was, as Holmes and company get closer and closer to nabbing this person in fictional form within our story; and if this was all the book had been, it still would've been okay, albeit more of a clever academic exercise than anything else, kind of like Michael Chabon's competent but ultimately disappointing Holmesian pastiche The Final Solution. But then in the last 50 pages, Faye does a truly remarkable thing, completely taking over emotional ownership of the story and ending it being any kind of pastiche at all, delivering an absolute knockout of a unique ending that has hints of modern psychology, J-horror and more, a tantalizing glimpse of just what kind of freaky masterpiece of a genre thriller Faye could put out if dealing with completely original elements from page one. In fact, I ended up bumping up my score today a little from what I was originally going to give it, just for having such a satisfying ending, which of course is almost a demand when it comes to stories like these -- because seriously, it just isn't a Holmes story it seems without the guilty party being discovered at the end in a spectacularly dramatic way, and a resolution brought about that lets us walk away from that story happy (even if the story itself doesn't end happily, which a lot of Holmesian stories don't).

Faye obviously has a deep understanding not only of the parts that make up a great genre story, but how to put them together in a highly enjoyable way, and I'm expecting big things from her in the future as she starts tackling her first tales of her own complete invention. Although you should be warned that it's still ultimately a story just for fans of a specific genre (which is why it's getting the score it is today -- don't forget that to rate in the 9s at CCLaP, a book must transcend a specific genre and appeal to a general audience), for what it is trying to accomplish it does so almost perfectly, and for those looking specifically for a delightfully inventive Victorian tale, you will find almost nothing better in the entirety of 2009. Dust and Shadow comes highly recommended today for all of those people in particular.

Out of 10: 8.9

Read even more about Dust and Shadow: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:32 AM, July 7, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |