Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary–including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police–with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane—deny.
Billed as Sherlock meets Dr Who and provided with a gorgeous cover, Jackaby first caught my eye when I saw it on one of the Book Smugglers Radar posts. And despite having watched neither show, only being aware of them through my twitter timeline, I was intrigued. With good reason as it turns out, because William Ritter’s debut is a delightful read.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Abigail Rook. She’s a girl in her late teens who has run away from home to have adventures, rebelling against her parents who think girl children can have all the learning they want – even go to university – as long as when the time comes, they don’t get any ideas to use their brains and wiles for anything else than netting themselves a husband. Abigail was having none of that and took her tuition money and ran ending up in New Fiddleham. I really enjoyed Abigail’s character. There is a down-to-earth practicality to her that I found oddly compelling. Fiercely independent, she’s also remarkably unflappable, though somewhat queasy at the sight of blood.
While Abigail is our narrator and the heart of the story, the star is the titular Jackaby. Eccentric, but brilliant, it is in Jackaby that the nods to Holmes and Dr Who are strongest, right down to the long scarf and tasting the evidence. Despite his oddities, or perhaps because of them, Jackaby remains less aloof from his assistant than would normally be proper, especially in the late nineteenth century. He’s a brilliant detective, who is regarded more as a bane than a help by the local constabulary as they don’t truck with his supernatural explanations. But Jackaby’s matter-of-factness about the existence of supernatural creatures and phenomena, make Abigail’s blithe acceptance of them more convincing.
Of course this easy acceptance is helped along by the fact that Jackaby’s house cum offices somewhat resemble a Tardis House, with impossible rooms and too-large spaces in it. Not to mention the other inhabitants, the house’s previous owner Jenny, now deceased yet still around, and Jackaby’s former assistant Douglas the mallard. Lastly, there is Charlie; a young police man at the start of his career, he instantly takes a shine to Abigail and she to him. Yet in the midst of the murder investigation they land in and with some other complicating factors, this remains a case of longing looks and polite exchanges, culminating in a daring rescue. I loved how Ritter built up Abigail’s relationship with all of these characters. My favourite supporting character had to be the ghostly Jenny,
In New Fiddleham Ritter has created a great setting. The town itself felt picturesque and lovely, without being overly described that way or coming on twee. The lore and mythology at the base of this alternate world is familiar, but with a twist. While the presence of out and out magic is never confirmed, there certainly are occult and supernatural beings and phenomena, although they aren’t the ones you’d expect. New Fiddleham felt like a real place, one that you could just step into and explore, yet it is a fictional town. At least, according to Google maps it doesn’t exist. It says a lot for Ritter’s ability to convey a sense of place through his narrative that New Fiddleham felt so convincingly real.
The murder mystery, which serves as the foundation of the plot, is fascinating and more complex than I initially thought, though I cottoned onto the culprit a little before the big reveal. The clues are all there, seeded throughout the narrative and Ritter cleverly places so they are just mis-aligning unless you are looking at them in the exactly correct way. I do think that those well-versed in British folklore and faery lore will figure out the truth about some of the characters faster than I did.
The book’s greatest draw, may also be its greatest flaw; I expect many reader will be drawn to the Sherlock/Dr Who billing, but as someone who is only aware of them as cultural phenomena and not a fan at times the references felt like window dressing and also made me wonder about the hints and nods I missed due to unfamiliarity with the shows.
Still, even if I felt a little left out of the in-jokes at times, I had a fantastic time with Jackaby. I found the narrative compelling and Abigail a fabulous main character, one I hope to meet again in the future. I think that any mystery lover, Holmes, or Dr Who fan will very much enjoy this book and will get a kick out of the quirky character that is R. F. Jackaby. William Ritter has delivered a wonderfully atmospheric and fun debut novel with Jackaby and I hope it the first of many novels from this promising new author.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.