The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison
Solaris, pb, £7.37
Reviewed by Joely Black
Sometimes books can really take you by surprise. If you’d asked me in advance to read a Sherlock Holmes book where angels, vampires, and werewolves were all real, and Sherlock Holmes is an angel called Crow, I’d probably have refused point-blank. It’s not my kind of thing at all. Vampires and werewolves aren’t my particular fantasy bag, and I’ve often felt Sherlock Holmes is a rather over-used. On top of that, this is, as even the blurb acknowledges, the author’s own Conan Doyle fan-fiction. Addison’s stand-in for Holmes is even tackling Jack the Ripper.
Fortunately, I had no idea this was what Angel of the Crows was about, so I kicked off with a completely open mind. Addison does a good job of balancing the tone and voice of late-Victorian fiction with the need to update it for a modern audience. The story is told from the perspective of J H Doyle and uses this ploy of switching names around throughout the book. The novel adapts the original Conan Doyle stories, adding in the supernatural elements to fit the new world she has established. J H Doyle meets Crow, an angelic variation on Sherlock Holmes, and they go on to solve a series of puzzles, while the Whitechapel murders rumble on in the background.
It’s like walking into a literary and true crime minefield. There’s the risk of annoying so many different groups all at once in a bid to appeal to those who like the idea of a London packed with fantastical beasts and true unsolved crime. On top of that, the Whitechapel murderers hold a particular place in popular and literary culture. Having set up the underpinning story frame around the ongoing murders and solving them, Addison has set herself a real challenge: does she leave us all unsatisfied with no culprit, point the finger at one of the major suspects already identified, or pick somebody entirely new?
In the first issue, Conan Doyle himself was fascinated by spiritualism, mystical beliefs and supernatural phenomena. Although the Sherlock Holmes novels were usually about Holmes disproving a supernatural explanation for every puzzle he encountered, I doubt Conan Doyle himself would have minded if there were hell-hounds prowling around Dartmoor or Moriarty were a literal vampire. Despite my general scepticism around novels like this, I found myself completely engaged and eager to read more. Addison rightly focuses on the crimes, the problem-solving, and wields the Whitechapel murders as an effective means to tie all the shorter stories together.
This leads us to the next problem: how do you tackle the Whitechapel murders in fiction in an effective manner? They have been sensationalised to such an extent (starting with the press at the time), and so fixated upon that pretty much everybody has written a book about them or provided some suspect to add to the line-up. It would be easy for an author to ride on that very human desire to solve a mystery and to fascinate over the gore. While we obsess over the likes of Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy, the victims themselves are lost in the furore, their own stories, lives and deaths only existing to serve the obsession over the killer.
As I read on, I realised Addison had an additional issue. This is, after all, fiction. In fiction, we like resolutions, and the Whitechapel murders have none. Picking one of the suspects would probably annoy anybody who was convinced it was somebody else, but then presenting somebody else, or a supernatural solution, would doubtless dissatisfy many readers hoping to see whose face would be revealed at the last. I could see Addison building up to a conclusion centred on the Whitechapel murders and wondered how she would do it.
In the end, I was not disappointed. The writing was compelling, the story well told. Addison weaves together the various threads with a dusting of modernity in there that will appeal to a broad audience. The solution to the Whitechapel murders was handled effectively, to the degree that anybody could provide a solution. In the end, until they invent a time machine, we will all be guessing, but Addison has adapted the problem to fiction very well indeed.