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by Alex Grecian
Putnam, May 2014
400 pages
ISBN: 0399166432

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE DEVIL'S WORKSHOP by Alex Grecian can be described in one word: gruesome. And yet, the novel exhibits subtleties that keep bringing the reader back for more gruesomeness. If you enjoy the most excruciatingly shocking details of torture and murder, you will find that Grecian certainly supplies those in abundance, but you will also experience 1880s London, its underbelly, its tragic realities, and its early Scotland Yard procedures.

London has just witnessed a murder spree by Jack the Ripper, who has apparently disappeared or taken his murderous rage elsewhere. Grecian creates a scenario in which the Ripper is not truly gone—just out of action. The novel begins with Jack's torture by a group known as the Karstphanomen, "a secret society made up of prominent London citizens who believed that criminal punishment should more directly match the actions of the criminals themselves." (Evidently this was a real society that "operated throughout the Victorian era, but is thought to have disbanded by the early twentieth century.") Barely kept alive by the secret society, Jack exists in underground London. The novel's focus shifts from the dark gloom of London's underground world to the "normal" aboveground life of London. This repetitive shift becomes a metaphor for the novel.

Meanwhile, convicts have escaped from Bridewell Prison. At the same time, Detective Inspector Walter Day, the hero of THE YARD, is awaiting the arrival of his first child. At two o'clock in the morning, Day realizes that he has "no control over his future, no control over [his wife's] life or the life of their coming child." Day is Everyman, trying to control life but finding that life is chaotic at best and tragic at its worst. The convicts eventually invade his life, and somehow Jack the Ripper escapes and also appears above ground. These events propel the novel forward and backward as aboveground and underground collide and mingle.

Many elements of this novel coalesce to produce a weird kind of fantastic art. For instance, Jack discusses his ideas of diabolical artistry. One would think he might be a tattoo artist who strives for perfection and originality in his "art." Jack's game is to rename his victims, mutilating their bodies, and seeing himself as a Christ figure. Before his escape from underground London, he believes that "he had performed his miracles, had allowed himself to be tortured, and had taken root in the soil. . . . He had achieved immortality. He was deathless."

In a way, the real Ripper has achieved immortality; he still haunts our collective memories and our books and movies. He became a symptom of a culture that believed it had achieved such greatness that it could never be dissolved. England and its children could never have imagined the horrors of the twentieth century, its world wars and its loss of empire. The character Grecian has created is right at home in our 21st century.

One character, a retired policeman and a member of the Karstphanomen, loves keys. In many places in the novel, the plot focuses on keys, prisons, chains, even a gun disguised as a key. All of these references underscore the helplessness of Detective Day and his companions. The police seem to become victims, even though they are the keepers of the keys for society. Deception reigns as the convicts, Jack the Ripper, and the secret society upset the natural order of things. For instance, Jack removes tongues from two of his victims, depriving them of voice. He hangs the tongues on a mantel as his trophies, his triumph over natural order. Jack also rechristens his victims, giving them new names, such as "fly," "bluebottle," or "Elizabeth" for a man.

The Ripper's idea of artistry depends on the game that he plays. His philosophy tells him that all human beings "are larvae, . . . awaiting transformation. We must be patient and we must understand that all change is painful." He takes his pleasure in being a part of the transformation. The Ripper believes that he is just a machine, "a part of the process" of all other machines.

Grecian creates post-modern havoc and makes something that stretches our understanding of how the most evil among us may reflect the dysfunctional nature of our culture. There is art in the macabre, if only briefly. Be prepared to behold its awfulness.

§ Donna Allard Halford is a retired English professor from Texas A&M University-Kingsville, now residing in the Hill Country with her best friend, the indomitable Charlie, mutt extraordinaire.

Reviewed by Donna Allard Halford, June 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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