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2018 Reading Challenge

2018 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 25 books toward her goal of 175 books.
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Book Review: A Knife in the Fog by Bradley Harper

I am a huge fan of Sherlockiana – the reimagining of Sherlock Holmes’ world and the people who populate it (be they original to the Doyle stories or new creations), including his creator Sir Arthur himself. But I’m also always a little skeptical when someone takes on a character or persona that is so beloved and so canonical and has become so entrenched in the literary universe. It must be no small task, daunt-wise, to decide you are going to take a famous character on as your own, and I’m both impressed and wary when I see that someone has done it. There are a number of fantastic books that have resulted – the Laurie R. King Sherlock/Mary Russell series, the Anthony Horowitz books being my favorite examples – but there are an equal number of disappointments (I won’t list those but if you’re curious am happy to share my thoughts!). It’s a bit of the old adage, paraphrased – “when they are good, they are very very good, but when they are bad they are (or tend to be) horrid…” Still, I’m a book optimist, so whenever I see a title that purports to carry on the Holmesian style of deductive mystery solving with a Holmes-adjacent cast I tend to at least give it a go. This was one such title, and while I’m not sorry I read it, I must confess it wasn’t one of my favorites – despite the presence of a little-known historical feminist journalist (Margaret Harkness), Sir Arthur AND Jack the Ripper, any one of whom (let alone all three together) usually offer greatly intriguing options for a story…

For those who don’t know of her, as I did not, Margaret Harkness is a fascinating character, and she was definitely the highlight of this book for me. I first looked her up on wikipedia – my go-to source for a quick-and-dirty bit of information on anyone/anything – and was then intrigued enough to dig further. What an extraordinary woman – and her characterization in the novel appears spot-on, even fictionalized. She was a radical journalist who wrote as a man, to be taken seriously in her London of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to see her adopting her nom de plume of John Law in dress and mannerism, as she does in the book, if it got her access to the information she needed for her journalism (or to sate her curiosity which appears to also have been reflected well in the characterization).

But enough about her actual life – this is about the book, which is fictionalized. Her character is well-painted and evocative and she adds a lot of color to the story. Unfortunately for me, she provided nearly all of it – and her role, while significant, wasn’t enough to overcome the otherwise somewhat formulaic and a bit unevenly paced plot.

This isn’t exactly a Holmes story – the literary detective never appears directly. But it’s definitely Holmesian, because Sir Arthur is the other main character and he is brought in because of Holmes – as is Dr. Joseph Bell, the inspiration for Holmes. I thought this was an interesting way to go about the mystery, keeping things within the realm of the possible even while allowing the introduction of the fictional in a nice meta-way. Unfortunately Harper’s Conan Doyle and Bell felt a bit flat and never grabbed me – which is unfortunate and a bit of a disservice to the actual men, because both are fascinating historical characters in their own right (and not just because of their relationship to Holmes). The book was fine – there was nothing overtly wrong with it, but while I was reading I kept feeling like I’d read it before, and with more action/suspense. It’s hard to believe I described a detective novel that purports to solve the Jack the Ripper killings in such a fashion, but unfortunately I did/do. The back-and-forth with Jack were interesting and tied in nicely with the actual history, offering speculation and proposals that were not only plausible but enjoyable to watch unfold. The twist-reveal caught me off-guard, I must admit, and was (after Harkness) the other high-point of the novel for me. Getting to that point seemed a bit drawn out; once it was revealed, things sped up a lot (almost too much at times) and the book tied together at the end rather handily (that’s not a bad thing, just an observation).

This is billed as “a mystery featuring Margaret Harkness and Arthur Conan Doyle” which suggests it’s the first in a series. I’m cautiously optimistic that things will tighten up a bit in future books, largely based on the strength of Margaret as a character, and if they do the series should be a solid addition to the genre.

My review copy was provided by Seventh Street Books.

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