book review: stalking jack the ripper

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco
JIMMY Patterson Books, 326 pp.
Published September 20, 2016

Seventeen-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth was born a lord's daughter, with a life of wealth and privilege stretched out before her. But between the social teas and silk dress fittings, she leads a forbidden secret life.

Against her stern father's wishes and society's expectations, Audrey often slips away to her uncle's laboratory to study the gruesome practice of forensic medicine. When her work on a string of savagely killed corpses drags Audrey into the investigation of a serial murderer, her search for answers brings her close to her own sheltered world.

The story's shocking twists and turns, augmented with real, sinister period photos, will make this dazzling, #1 New York Times bestselling debut from author Kerri Maniscalco impossible to forget.

Stalking Jack the Ripper blends together several favorite genres of mine. Elements of thrillers and horror combine with a forward-thinking protagonist in a historical setting for a colorful adventure. Audrey Rose is a vibrant young woman who wishes to straddle the line between traditionally masculine pursuits—generally, a career; more specifically, one in forensic science—while still indulging decidedly feminine tastes. Shunning the extremes of strict tomboys and flouncy ladies, her insistence on pursuing both facets of her identity reminds reader that one needn't choose one or the other. This modern thinking has its drawbacks, though, namely an anachronistic manner of expression and thinking that clashes with the Victorian setting. Audrey is not merely a progressive 19th-century woman; she's a 21st-century heroine laced into a bustle, wielding a few period-appropriate phrases to fit in. While her attitude is welcome, she doesn't quite fit into the world Maniscalco has written.

With such a brightly drawn main character, perhaps it was inevitable that those around her would pale in comparison. Thomas Cresswell, a fellow student and potential love interest, is chiefly defined by a flat snark that neither amuses nor endears. While the affection between he and Wadsworth hardly develops instantaneously, it lacks a believable degree of chemistry. None of her male relatives fare much better. Her brother is largely defined by who he once was, rather than his present actions and personality. Although he's present for much of the story the way Audrey thinks of him makes Nathaniel feel less involved. Absent for much of the novel, her lordly father rates as more of a vaguely ominous presence than a character in his own right. The cantankerous attitude of Audrey's uncle and scientific tutor never quite feels justified, either.

Given its hearty posturing as a 'girl power' narrative, Stalking Jack the Ripper has a disappointing lack of developed female characters beyond Audrey Rose. Though she reflects charitably on the Ripper's victims, in action they are nothing more than future victims glimpsed at a distance or bloody corpses ready for examination. Her relatives never break loose from their lazy stereotypes: a nagging aunt preoccupied with propriety; a gossipy cousin with whom Audrey claims a close relationship, yet interacts with only at large social gatherings. In a story that centers around violence towards women, their relegation to the fringes of the narrative puzzles.

Maniscalco's prose crackles off the page, although it employs a bit too much exuberance in the telling. The overall effect of Stalking Jack the Ripper is, in fact, one of soap opera dramatics played out on a cardboard set. The majority of characters are too thinly realized for their relationships to leave much impact. Major developments are telegraphed so early that the tension of solving one of history's most infamous crime sprees evaporates in the novel's opening act.

The disconnect between dimension and dynamism expands as Stalking Jack the Ripper unspools. Individual elements contain a glimmer of promise, yet a muddied execution leaves behind an anachronistic jumble that fails to deliver on the feminist twist that lent it so much initial appeal.


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