Review: Ripper

Ripper by Stefan Petrucha. Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: An action adventure steampunk Jack the Ripper mystery set in New York City!

New York City, 1895. Carver Young, 14, is living in Ellis Orphanage. He loves mystery stories, and the biggest mystery of them all is who he is. “Young” was made up because he was left at the orphanage as an infant. The only clue he has to his past is an old letter from his father. “Shan’t quit, but have to stop for now, boss” says the letter from London dated 1889.

Carver has a plan: find his long lost father. Who better to ask than Teddy Roosevelt, the police commissioner? Maybe Carver can impress Roosevelt enough to get a job, something he needs now that he’s too old to stay at the Orphanage.

Carver doesn’t quite get what he wants, but he does get what he needs: a job and the chance to track down his father. He also finds himself in the middle of Roosevelt’s investigation of the bloody “library murderer.” It turns out, his long lost father and the current criminal investigation may have more in common than anyone realizes.

The Good: The prologue reveals up front that Jack the Ripper is the library killer. It also includes a copy of one of the “Dear Boss” letters written in 1888 by Jack. When Carver discovers the letter sent by his father, Petrucha has given the reader not familiar with Jack the Ripper enough to realize the identity of Carver’s father. You know who doesn’t know? Carver, or any of the other people in Ripper. That knowledge is the reader’s.

Carver has two friends from the Orphanage who also recently were adopted: Delia, taken in by a married couple who are both reporters, a career Delia aspires to; and Finn, a bit of a bully who finds himself adopted so that he can be part of staged photo ops.

Carver ends up being adopted/apprenticed by Albert Hawking, a detective from the famous Pinkerton Agency. The founder of that Agency is dead, and Hawking and another Pinkerton detective, Septimus Tudd, have started the New Pinkertons to carry on. Under the dual tutelage of Hawking and Tudd, Carver begins to track down his father. It’s old fashioned research. If the letter is dated 1889, doesn’t that mean his father came looking for him in 1889? Are there records of the travelers from England who entered New York City in 1889? Some of what Carver does is hardly glamorous or exciting, but it is real detective work.

Tudd likes experiments and science, and, in a nutshell, the New Pinkertons is Steampunk Central. It’s pure science fiction, not fantasy, and Petrucha explains in a note the reality behind the inventions that Carver uses and encounters. I was familiar with Alfred Beach and his Pneumatic Subway; when explaining that something else dated to a few years after the events in Ripper, Petrucha muses, “if a secret detective agency can’t get a few advance models, who can?”

As the title and the start of the book reveals to all (except, of course, Carver who doesn’t realize he is in a book called Ripper), Carver isn’t just tracking his father. He’s tracking Jack the Ripper. And, Jack the Ripper is the library murderer. I thought that was it; that I just needed to wait for Carver to come to that realization. Except — well — it turns out to be so much more than that. So much that it’s one of the books where I went “WHAT” and turned back to the first chapter. Well done, Petrucha! He made me think I knew what was going on when I knew nothing at all. Better yet, I didn’t even suspect because, remember, I thought I knew it all.

Ripper conveys a sense of the time and place of New York City in the 1890s. I was reminded of one of my favorite books, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and so wasn’t surprised at all to see Petrucha reference it in his acknowledgements. I hope there is a sequel because there are a few things I had questions about and while my questions did not need to get answered in this book, I would like to get answers at some point. Or, if you want, we can discuss in the comments!

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