John Matthews – Letters From a Murderer

johnmatthews-lettersfromamurdererNew York, 1891. A prostitute is found brutally murdered. The victim bears the same hallmarks as a notorious recent killing spree in England.

Could it be that killer has crossed the Atlantic to fresh killing grounds? Or is this simply a copycat murder? Fear spreads through a city already rife with cut-throat gangs, corruption and vice.

Aristocratic English pathologist, Finley Jameson, is teamed up with Joseph Argenti, a streetwise New York cop, to solve the case. But as the body-count rises and the killer taunts his pursuers in open letters, Jameson & Argenti find themselves fighting not just to prevent yet more victims, but also to save the city’s very soul.

Jack the Ripper’s identity is a mystery for the ages. As the first modern serial killer and certainly the first whose acts have been so well documented, he has been the inspiration for countless stories, many of them creating their own solution for the riddle of who he was. Letters From a Murderer is the latest novel in this vein and it has to be said, the story John Matthews paints is riveting. It’s clear that Matthews knows his Ripper history and he weaves in some very detailed facts into his fiction, making his story that much more plausible. 

Letters From a Murderer plays off the assumption that one of the possible reasons of the sudden stop to the Ripper murders was because he emigrated. In the book the Ripper has moved to New York and has resumed his bloody work in the seething ant hill that is the poorer quarters of the metropolis. Once a connection is made to the Ripper murders, the London authorities refer the New York Police Squad to Finley Jameson, a Brit and former protégé of the London criminalist Thomas Colby, who has been living in New York after the death of his aunt. Jameson is called in to consult with the new lead investigator on the case, Joseph Argenti.

The title is a great word play on both the letters the Ripper sent to the police and the press – the first of which famously began Dear Boss… – and on one of the plot points. The case is very much a psychological game between Jameson and Argenti on the one hand and the Ripper on the other. The Ripper makes the case personal by blaming the further deaths of any victims on Jameson for not catching him sooner. Matthews succeeds in making the reader doubt everyone, the only one whose veracity is never suspect is Argenti. Argenti is a good man and an upstanding police officer, a fact that results in a great subplot to the novel. Corruption was rife in the NY police force at the time and Mathews incorporates this into his story through the antagonism between Argenti and McClusky and other cops on the take. McClusky is in the pocket of Michael Tierney, one of the big crime lords of the city, and their animosity towards Argenti, not to mention their need to keep their agreement under wraps creates some interesting situations for our intrepid investigators. It made the story less about the Ripper case and more about the characters of Argenti and Jameson, while at the same time adding extra tension to the Ripper story line.

Argenti and Jameson are fascinating characters. There are some Sherlockian overtones in both Jameson, with his less-than-recreational use of the poppy, and in his assistant Lawrence, who has an almost savant-like recall. Like Holmes there are also rumours of mental illness, which in Lawrence’s case are well known. Jameson is a privileged member of the upper class and as such doesn’t always blend very well with those he works with and investigates. But for all his short-sightedness and occasional boorishness to those less-fortunate than he, he isn’t a bad man. This is illustrated by his taking Ellie Cullen under his wing to teach her how to read. I loved Jameson’s interactions with Ellie. She’s a fabulous character and I liked how Matthews leveraged her to humanise the victims, especially since society at large at the time didn’t really seem to care about these women whose work was less than respectable and lived on the edges of society. This is re-enforced by Argenti’s feelings whenever he has to notify the parents of another victim. He sees them as human first and foremost and not as beneath notice. Argenti is a bit older and a solid working cop, with a loving family life. I liked that they were included in the novel; we see him around them and the love shared among them, which might go some way to explaining his sympathy for the grieving parents, but Argenti is also a man with a secret. We learn the full extent of his secret late in the book and it makes a lot about Argenti clearer, though it’s more of a deepening of our understanding than that he’s revealed in a new light.

Letters From a Murderer was a compelling read with two fabulous lead investigators, who I hope we’ll get to see much more of in the future. Matthews tells a great story laced with pathos and unexpected twists, which I just couldn’t put down. It was an exciting and gripping narrative, which elaborates on the Jack the Ripper mystery in a novel way. If you enjoy historical crime fiction, this is the book to put on your Christmas wish list this year.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.