Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle teams up with radical social critic Margaret Harkness to find and apprehend the yet-unnamed Jack the Ripper. Along for the ride is Doyle’s former professor, Joseph Bell, a masterful surgeon who just so happens to be the inspiration for the character of Holmes. Now that’s one heck of an elevator pitch.
A Knife in the Fog by Bradley Harper (Seventh Street Books) has all the wild, untamed energy of a “what if?” historical fiction novel despite being brilliantly grounded in a real and visceral Victorian London that’s as much a character as Doyle or Harkness. Other authors have conceived of Arthur Conan Doyle investigating Jack the Ripper before, as the two were contemporaries and A Study in Scarlet was published just before the murders began, but adding Margaret Harkness to the party is an interesting twist.
The novel is narrated by an older Doyle at the end of his life in the 1920s, though the action takes place mostly in the late nineteenth century. This allows Harper to draw comparisons to modern innovations such as the car and train while keeping the narration within the realm of believability coming from Doyle.
Harkness serves as his guide to the mean streets of London, 1888, and together they employ their skills of deduction to learn more about the “Leather Apron”—an early name for the man who later gains infamy as Jack the Ripper.
The dynamic between Doyle, Harkness and Bell turns out to be a delightful one. While Bell’s inclusion sidelines Doyle’s role to that of a Watson rather than a Holmes, this is far more historically accurate. It’s great to see an author willing to sit the more famous name (Doyle) in the backseat so the true Sherlock (Bell) can shine.
In fact, Harper frequently eschews sensationalism for historical accuracy in a way that readers familiar with the Whitechapel Murders as well as readers with only a cursory knowledge of Arthur Conan Doyle and Jack the Ripper will appreciate. The dialogue (as well as Doyle’s internal, frequently worried but always coolheaded monologue) is period-appropriate for the educated cast of characters and other details are meticulously researched from the value of money in late nineteenth-century Britain to the geography of post-industrial London.
Harkness is used to her full potential as a character as well. She has the street smarts and radical cunning that the “proper gentlemen” Doyle and Bell lack; they’re intellectuals with full if not overflowing purses while she is equally proficient in her writing yet far less affluent. Additionally, the gender dynamics at play are fascinating, particularly as Jack the Ripper targets women and the London nights amidst London fog grow more and more dangerous for women in particular.
This dream team, assembled by none other than William Gladstone (between terms as Prime Minister) aims to stop Jack the Ripper before he murders again, but they soon realize that they’re too late, and something sinister lurks behind the fog…
A Knife in the Fog is now available for purchase.
About Bradley Harper
Bradley Harper is a retired US Army pathologist with real-life experience in forensic death investigation, and he uses that experience in his writing. His debut novel, A Knife in the Fog, involves a young Arthur Conan Doyle and suffragette author Margaret Harkness in the hunt for Jack the Ripper and was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American. Dr. Harper has been published in the Strand Magazine and the Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and the audiobook of his novel, narrated by former Royal Shakespeare Company actor Matthew Lloyd Davies, won Audiofile’s Earphone award for the category of Mystery and Suspense for 2018.