The Conan Doyle Notes: The Secret of Jack the Ripper by Diane Gilbert Madsen

Review by Chris Redmond

This book by Diane Gilbert Madsen, the second in her series of "Literati" mysteries starring a Chicago insurance investigator named DD McGil, is enjoyable reading, in a style that's very reminiscent of Janet Evanovich's popular novels about Stephanie Plum. There are so many Sherlockian pastiches these days that were written by amateurs and edited by nobody; it's a pleasure to encounter a piece of thoroughly professional work, with sentences that are clear, conversation that's plausible, and no absurdities, anachronisms and grammatical clangers.

Sherlockians will enjoy this book particularly because one of the central characters is one of our own: the very real Chicago-based book dealer Tom Joyce. I don't know Joyce personally, but I'd bet Madsen does, or she wouldn't get away with having him almost murdered in the first chapter. (Here's hoping that's not too much of a spoiler, but at least it's an indication that events move swiftly in The Conan Doyle Notes.) If any of the other characters are real people, perhaps under noms de guerre, I'm not aware of it.

The book's double title is rather unfortunate. One title would have been enough, although neither of these two halves is particularly distinctive. Presumably it was thought important to get both proper names, “Conan Doyle” and “Jack the Ripper”, onto the cover. What it means is that the plot involves a sheaf of notes ACD is supposed to have made, sometime in the 1890s, about the Ripper case, which took place in 1888. There is some historical reality to that much of the narrative; ACD, possibly in collaboration with his mentor Joseph Bell, did take some interest in the Ripper affair, but it is beyond me, and possibly beyond anybody, to separate fact from legend at this date.

The one section of this book where things drag a little — after murders, burglaries, frauds, fires, and romances — comes when the notes are finally found, and their full text is presented to the reader, in an unfortunate font mimicking handwriting. Of course it's possible that I am the only Sherlockian who is heartily, permanently tired of reading about Sir Charles Warren, Frederick Abberline, Israel Lipski, and the rest of the Ripper cast. If you still have an appetite for the double event, the Juwes and the letter “from Hell,” well, that section of The Conan Doyle Notes will be your meat. Whether you think ACD's (that is, the author's) identification of the Ripper is plausible or clichéd is another matter.

I seem to have missed the first of the DD McGil novels, Hunting for Hemingway, probably because it wasn't Sherlockian. I may make an effort to get hold of it. And I will definitely look forward to a third book in the series, hoping that it will have some sort of Sherlockian content. I can easily imagine modern-day mysteries to be solved in Pennsylvania's valley of fear, for example.