“He’s very cunning,” Hawking said, as if admiring him. “Perhaps brilliant, strong, dedicated, all qualities one might be proud to possess.”
“B-but…,” Carver stammered, “he’s also evil.”
Hawking turned his intense gaze on Carver. “And no one wants to hear good things about the devil, eh?”
(from Ripper, page 201)
Ripper, my book club’s December pick, is a young adult historical/steampunk novel focused on orphan and amateur detective, Carver Young, in 1895 New York City. The 14-year-old Carver is adopted by a not-so-retired Pinkerton detective, Albert Hawking, just as murders reminiscent of London’s Jack the Ripper begin, putting pressure on the city’s police commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt, who is working tirelessly to reform the corrupt police department.
Carver is thrust into a world he believed to be the stuff of crime novels, brought by Hawking to an underground crime lab run by the New Pinkertons, whose agents are working secretly to solve the murders in hopes of putting the agency back in the limelight. He is tasked with finding his biological father, known to him only through the letter in his orphanage file, under the tutelage of the eccentric Hawking. Although he is fascinated with the gadgetry of the New Pinkertons, Hawking teaches Carver how to narrow down the possibilities and to trust his gut — which comes in handy when it becomes obvious that finding his father is not only a daunting but also very dangerous task.
Stefan Petrucha uses the facts known about the London murders committed by Jack the Ripper, along with actual letters he sent to the newspapers and police, as a foundation for a chilling tale. But Ripper is more about Carver’s evolution than finding the man responsible for the brutal slayings of city socialites. Watching Carver mature and develop his detective skills is the highlight of the novel, along with how turn-of-the-century New York City becomes a character in itself.
However, the book was slow-moving for the most part, helped along by the fact that the big mystery becomes obvious early on. The Girl (age 12) read this book with me, and she figured it out right away and frequently mentioned how “blah” the descriptions were. Moreover, the murders were barely described, so they didn’t have much of an impact, and while Petrucha might have toned that down for the target audience, The Girl pointed out how she’s read YA zombie novels that were much gorier and exciting. Petrucha picked up the pace in the last quarter of the book, which made it much easier to read and enjoy.
Overall, Ripper was just an okay book for us. The history was interesting and the premise was intriguing, but we felt there was something missing in the execution. The book club seemed to feel the same way. Most members said they simply weren’t part of the target audience, but even the youngest member of the group had a hard time with its predictability and lack of excitement. Even though the book lacked the gore one would expect when focusing on a serial killer, there was a hint of creepiness in both the asylum where Hawking lived and worked and the home of the crazy cat lady and member of the Midnight Band of Mercy. Ripper didn’t make for a captivating mystery, but it shines as a coming-of-age story about a young boy unsure of who he is, what to make of his parentage, and how to rise above the evil attacking him and the city he loves.
Disclosure: I borrowed Ripper from the public library.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.