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A KNIFE IN THE FOG
by Bradley Harper
Seventh Street Books, October 2018
288 pages
$15.95
ISBN: 1633884864


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

When an author of a Sherlockian spinoff dedicates his novel to "'The Woman,' in my life's story," one ought to assume that the dedicatee has outwitted him, spoken his name only in passing in the street, and married someone else and run away. That, after all, is what the woman whom Holmes dubs "the woman," Irene Norton, nee Adler, does. Bradley Harper's dedication of A KNIFE IN THE FOG to "The Woman" in his life's story suggests that Mrs. Norton will haunt his writing, and she does, in the form of Margaret Harkness. A woman who walks alone at night (the boldness!) and despite her "proper upbringing" lives in the sketchy, working-class East End, she also tries to help East End prostitutes. That is how she gets mixed up, of course, in the search for Jack the Ripper. Because really, could 1888 London harbor any other imaginable criminal mysteries?

As Doyle, the supposedly outre but actually annoyingly impeccable "emancipated woman" Miss Harkness, and Doyle's real-life mentor and Holmes model Dr. Joseph Bell try to help Inspector Frank Abberline to unmask the Ripper, this reader slogged through the London fog after them, anticipating the victims' names (Annie Chapman, Mary Kelly...) in keeping with the tired premise's demands. There is no reason for Miss Harkness to exist, except to make this book look somehow feminist. Her dialogue is full of clunky exposition ("the plight of the match girls, whom I have helped organize..."). Why should the reader be concerned about the fate of such a sanctimonious automaton?

There's little reason to care for any of the victims, either. When Doyle heads off to "the Ripper's hunting grounds," it's hard not to think of those women as animals and the Ripper's activities as some kind of exciting manly quest. However, Harper tries to create concern for the Ripper's apparent major target: visiting American novelist Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, whose genius Doyle admires. We're supposed to root for our "Three Musketeers" (Doyle, Harkness, and Bell) because the Ripper is conveniently a white supremacist, which is why he targets Mark Twain, on account of, among other things, the latter's "sympathetic portrayal of a nubian." (White supremacists are mostly a danger to other whites, apparently.)

The real mystery of A KNIFE IN THE FOG is how Doyle became such an enlightened individual, only a year after constructing the subhuman Andaman Islander villain of the first Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, October 2018

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