Book Review: Jackaby, by William Ritter

Billed as Sherlock meets Doctor Who, Jackaby is the story of a paranormal investigator in 19th century New England and his intrepid female companion — but it blends some of the best elements of both series, while dropping some of the worst. Lose Sherlock’s arrogance and misogyny, cut out Who’s appalling treatment of female characters, but bring in both shows’ sense of adventure and mystery and wonder, and you have something very much like Jackaby, an absolute delight of a book that actually led me to exclaim ‘that was a really fun book!’ when I finished reading it.

Abigail Rook is a young woman recently landed on the shores of the United States after a hasty departure from an archaeological dig gone horribly, horribly wrong. While wandering the streets of New Fiddleham in search of work, she finally lands upon the investigative offices of R.F. Jackaby, and is immediately pulled into a bizarre criminal investigation. By bizarre, I mean not just that the murder itself is bizarre, but that the criminal is as well.

Jackaby is a Seer, possibly the only living Seer in existence, and he’s capable of witnessing things that others cannot, identifying that which remains mysterious and unexplainable to everyone else. He applies his knowledge to the investigation of cases that defy lesser investigators because they integrate elements of the supernatural, while still firmly regarding himself as a man of science. In a way, Jackaby is like bees and birds who see on the ultraviolet spectrum, picking up the hidden signals in flowers that aren’t visible to the human eye. It might seem like bizarre magic to us, but to them, it’s something perfectly ordinary and unremarkable. What could be odd, after all, about what’s right in front of you?

While Abigail doesn’t possess his vision, she does have something equally important to bring to the match: She’s a keen observer, and she’s especially good at picking up on the little things. While Jackaby can zoom in on traces of the invisible, she’s the one who spots things that others overlook, and brings them to Jackaby’s attention. In a way, he feels like the pie in the sky side of the partnership, while she’s the one who brings him to earth with reminders of the more mundane, and the role it plays in investigations. While he may spot signs of the supernatural in a case, it’s she who brings up pieces of concrete evidence that help them get to the bottom of matters.

She and Jackaby don’t just find themselves plunged into a bloody investigation hampered at every term by obstructionist and irritating police. They also share a home, one which is mysterious and delightful — I don’t want to give too much away because you should discover it on your own, but rest assured, there is much to love in the house with the red door (only seriously, don’t stare at the frog). And whether Jackaby is attempting to season eggs with gunpowder or discussing trolls, he’s introducing Abigail to a fascinating new world as she finds her footing in North America.

Several things fascinate me about this book, beyond the rollicking plot, the attention to detail, and the splendid blend of the mundane and the magical. (Though, of course, Jackaby would be the first to insist that there is nothing magical about the world he sees — while he freely admits that it is invisible to others, that doesn’t mean it’s not as real, and explainable, as everything else is.)

The first is Abigail Rook herself. While she takes on the role of plucky, adventurous heroine put into a sidekick position, it would be a mistake to underestimate her, because she constantly and confidently asserts herself. She’s not just a girl who’s run away from home: She’s a girl who endured grueling conditions on a fossil dig, who traveled on her own to the US to seek her fortunes when that went sour, and she’s a girl who knows her own worth in society. That’s an integrity that comes from within Abigail, not the society around her, and she’s constantly smacking people down when they say her line of work isn’t fit for women, that Jackaby is a bad influence and she shouldn’t work with him. She’s not afraid to assert herself with Jackaby, either, demonstrating her worth and telling him that she’s an independent woman with the autonomy to make her own decisions. Abigail makes it clear that she doesn’t need her choices made for her — and doesn’t appreciate it when people try to do just that.

The other is Jackaby, who almost falls into the trap of arrogant, hyperfocused, self-centred investigator (the Doctor at his worst, and Sherlock almost always), but doesn’t. He respects Abigail and the people he works with, and experiences genuine remorse when he makes mistakes — some truly cataclysmic. While we don’t know much about his past or about the details of who he is now, it seems clear that he’s not a tortured hero or any of that nonsense: He’s a man with unique senses who puts them to good use, and he tries to avoid allowing that to turn him into someone with lofty beliefs about his value with respect to others. Ultimately, Jackaby is grounded in reality and humanity.

I really hope that this book is only the start of a series, as I could stand to read many, many more mysteries integrating these characters and traditional folklore, legends, and fairytales of the supernatural and otherwise, and I have a certain fondness for New Fiddleham and the people who inhabit it. All in all, I’d say this is a deliciously fun debut from a writer to watch.