Title: Jackaby (2014)
Author: William Ritter
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Read: 4th – 10th May 2019
Genre: YA fantasy; historical; mystery
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
“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 the foul deeds are the work of the kind of creature whose very existence the local authorities–with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane–seem adamant to deny.” (Synopsis from publisher)
Described as Sherlock Holmes meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, William Ritter’s Jackaby tells the story of one young Abigail Rook who ends up in New England and, in need of a job and money, answers the strange job advertisement of an eccentric detective, the eponymous Jackaby. Considered mad and intrusive by most of the official police force for his unconventional methods, Jackaby is revealed to be the only Seer in existence, a person who can see supernatural and paranormal beings that other normal people cannot – when New Fiddleham is beset by a serial killer who may or may not be paranormally inclined, Jackaby’s particular talent has him, and assistant/fledgling detective Abigail, hot on the heels of a chilling criminal.
“He’s quite mad, you know. But adventure can be very appealing.”
It’s not only the publicity material of this book which points to Sherlock Holmes as a point of comparison – it’s quite evident from the very first meeting readers (and Abigail) have with the novel’s hero that he is cast from the same mould as Conan Doyle’s astute but socially atypical consulting detective. Unlike Holmes, however, Jackaby is unique not just because he thinks in a different way than the town’s police force but because he can see supernatural traces left in the ordinary world. His glib and often unintentionally funny remarks really did remind me of Sherlock Holmes and his many reincarnations in television and film over the years. I have to admit though: I did find it somewhat frustrating that neither Abigail nor the reader was allowed any kind of insight into the character’s motivations or, indeed, personality past the stereotypical keen observational skills and monomania once hot on the heels of an interesting case that he possessed, often to the detriment of social niceties. It would be nice to learn about his background more in the next books. Similarly, aside form a basic setup of her personality and her backstory of running away from her parents and the ‘boring’ life expected of her in favour of searching for adventure in the great wide somewhere, we don’t really get to know Abigail in any great detail, something surprising considering we literally see the story from her point of view in her role as the chronicler of Jackaby’s cases.
” ‘I don’t exactly believe in all this… this… this occult business. I don’t believe in house spirits, or goblins, or Santa Claus!’
‘Well, of course not, that’s silliness. Not the spirits or goblins, of course, but the Santa nonsense.’ “
I thought a particular strength of the book was the supernatural additions to what would otherwise be a fairly run-of-the-mill detective story set in the late-19th century. I’ll admit that I would have liked a little more grounding of the physical setting of the New England town of New Fiddleham but the incorporation of goblins, banshees, ghosts, and shapeshifters into this world was very well done and I bought into those elements almost immediately so that’s a testament to how well and matter-of-factly the author introduced these creatures into the crime storyline. There’s one particular reveal of a character’s supernatural secret which I thought was actually kind of obvious, but I’ll let it slide because I quite liked the character that it involved and I’m hoping to see more of him in future storylines. Similarly, the ghost, Jenny, who haunts Jackaby’s cluttered and eccentric house (‘eccentric’ as in there’s a pond on one of the levels inside) is a wonderful character and I presume we’ll get to know her in the rest of the series as Abigail becomes officially part of Jackaby’s employ and continues her budding friendship with the supernatural inhabitant of her home.
“That the battles are usually in her head does not lessen the bravery of it. The hardest ones always are.”
Although Jackaby seemed a tad too derivative of Sherlock Holmes stories for my liking, I did think the transplanting of a similar kind of detective and assistant narrative into a paranormal and New England setting was a breath of fresh air for your typical mystery story. My main criticism of the book would be that the novel seemed to pass by much too quickly. The entire action of the plot basically takes place over a few days which is probably the main reason for the lack of character development. However, I am hopeful that the subsequent stories in the series will see the backgrounds and personalities of Abigail Rook and R.F. Jackaby explored even further as they investigate more paranormal happenings in their New England home.
“Monsters are easy, Miss Rook. They’re monsters. But a monster in a suit? That’s basically just a wicked man, and a wicked man is a more dangerous thing by far.”