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BOOK REVIEW

'Dust and Shadow' by Lyndsay Faye

A debut novelist successfully imagines what might have happened had Sherlock Holmes hunted for the serial murderer known as Jack the Ripper.

April 29, 2009|Tim Rutten

"Holmes, without looking up from his work, remarked, 'An argument could be made that the ultimate desecration of the human body is to end its earthly usefulness, which would imply that all murderers share equally that specific charge.'

" 'This is rather beyond the pale. It states here that some poor woman, as yet unidentified, was found stabbed to death in Whitechapel.'

" 'A deplorable, though hardly baffling occurrence. I imagine that she worked the area for food, drink and daily shelter. Such pitiable unfortunates are particularly likely to inspire crimes of passion in the men with whom they associate.'

" 'She was stabbed twenty times, Holmes.'

" 'And your unassailable medical assessment is that once would have been enough.' "

Soon, following the infamous night of Sept. 30, when the Ripper killed twice, Holmes is drawn into the case by his old Scotland Yard adversary/comrade, Inspector Lestrade.

Before the case has run its course, the great detective will not only be forced to plumb the darkness of depravity, but he also will himself stand accused of being the Ripper by a proto-tabloid journalist.

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Let's look at history

There are minor historical inaccuracies in this generally well-researched novel. For example, the then-commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Charles Warren, cannot have relieved Gen. Gordon at Khartoum, because Gordon and all his men were killed by the Mahdi before the British/Egyptian rescue force arrived in Sudan. Moreover, as Holmes narrows his hunt in Faye's narrative, the paucity of suspects lets readers resolve the mystery a bit earlier than he does.

Faye's book, however, really rises or falls on her ability to summon the spirits of Holmes and Watson. Her final evocation of a darker Holmes, more wounded by a life peering into mendacity, greed and passion than Conan Doyle -- confident product of a confident imperial age -- perhaps could have allowed, is a contemporary liberty that does her credit. In the end, she concedes Conan Doyle's "most notorious character" a bit more humanity than did the creator himself.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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