It’s a Mystery: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”

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A Knife in the Fog
By Bradley Harper
Seventh Street/Prometheus, 2018


Once more the game is afoot, as Sherlock Holmes often says. This time it’s his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, who is on the case. It is 1888 and Jonathan Wilkins, Prime Minister William Gladstone’s personal secretary, calls on Doyle to assist in the hunt for the heinous Whitechapel murderer. Three prostitutes have been slaughtered within the past month. Scotland Yard has given the murderer the nom de guerre “Leather Apron” based on a description by the ladies of the night of a suspicious bloke they see “loitering” who was always wearing one. Wilkins goes on to explain that he read Doyle’s recently published “A Study in Scarlet,” the story that introduces the world to Holmes and Watson, and he hopes that Doyle can emulate Sherlock’s deductive gifts. He asks that Doyle come to London immediately.

Once there, Doyle is offered one month’s employment to assist the Metropolitan Police, specifically Inspector Abberline from Section D of the Criminal Investigation Department, in the hunt. (An Inspector Abberline really did investigate the case.) The killer has written a chilling letter to the Central News Agency and given himself the infamous name:

Dear Boss I keep on hearing the police have caught me. but they won’t fix me just yet. I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track. That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits. I am down on whores and I shant quit ripping them till I do get buckled. Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal. How can they catch me now. I love my work and want to start again….My knife’s so nice and sharp…

Good Luck.

       Yours truly

       Jack the Ripper

                   Don’t mind me giving the trade name

       They say I’m a doctor now. ha ha

Doyle agrees to assist only if his mentor and the model for Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Joseph Bell, can be his partner.  Bell needs very little encouragement.

Professor Joseph Bell, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and Surgeon in Attendance whenever Her Majesty visited Scotland…. He was a marvel at physical examination and diagnosis! …He was famous among the medical community for his ability to correctly diagnose a patient by merely observing them as they entered the examination room, while also identifying their trade or profession as well as their recent travel history.

Wilkins also puts Doyle in touch with Margaret Harkness to serve as their guide “one of the new breed of ‘emancipated women,’ a female author.”

She’s a formidable woman who wields a Derringer as aptly as a knitting needle. (Using the pen-name John Law, a Margaret Harkness was a real-life radical journalist.) She dons male attire and poses as Bell’s secretary, Joseph Pennyworth, mischievously relishing her masquerade: ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’. They are soon a threesome hoping to be reckoned with but ill prepared for what is to come.

Bradley Harper’s A Knife in the Fog skillfully evokes a terrorized Victorian London between August and November of 1888 when the Ripper’s bloody rampage prevailed. Conan Doyle is as fascinating and gifted a detective as his creation. The colorful cast of characters, vividly portrayed, includes cameo appearances by Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. In fact, Wilde’s advice to Doyle adds a new dimension to what we know about the Great Detective: “Write about justice.”

But it is the premise, the plotting, the attention to period detail that make this debut novel, A Knife in the Fog, so special. Most important of all, is the deliciously irreverent solution which, believe it or not, is very 21st century.