A Study in Terror

DAW Books published in 1988 a Jack-the-Ripper anthology, Red Jack, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh, and Frank D. McSherry. Recently reprinted by iBooks as Jack the Ripper, the anthology’s centerpiece is the Ellery Queen-bylined Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Terror. Never having read Queen’s novel nor seen its film adaptation I picked up the anthology. Marvin Kaye described the book in The Game Is Afoot as “the best of several novels to pit Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper.” High praise, considering I had liked Edward B. Hanna’s The Whitechapel Horrors, a book that earned points in my esteem for not naming the Ripper, and had even enjoyed much of Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story.

My thoughts on A Study in Terror? I didn’t like it.

As a work of Ripper fiction the book is a failure.

Of the five accepted Ripper victims only two are mentioned–Annie Chapman and Polly Nichols, and for the latter only her first name is ever given–but the novel places the two murders in the wrong order. Chapman’s murder occurs early in the novel, but it is said that the Ripper has already claimed five victims, when in reality Chapman was the second victim, perhaps the third or fourth if one counts the murders of Martha Tabrum and Emma Smith which took place in Whitechapel but have little else to connect them to the Ripper. One later murder is mentioned–Watson views the body in the mortuary–but the description of the body mutilations–the Ripper removed one of her breasts–matches none of the latter victims, unless Watson viewed the final victim, Mary Kelly, but would not Watson have noticed the other mutilations the Ripper inflicted upon that victim?

No, it would be better to say that A Study in Terror pits Sherlock Holmes against a random murderer in London’s East End in the autumn of 1888. Scholars looking for an accurate representation of the Whitechapel murders will not find it here.

As a work of Sherlock Holmes fiction the book has its moments, though I would hesitate to recommend the book.

As an evocation of Watson’s style, the prose comes close in parts but it lacks the flavor of the genuine article. The London on 1888 isn’t evoked on the page. The squalor of Whitechapel isn’t present.

There are a few genuinely Holmesian moments. The Holmes brothers out-deducing one another at the window in the Diogenes Club. Holmes stating his reasons for not involving himself in the Ripper murders–they lack the intellectual puzzle he so craves. But when Holmes is given an intellectual puzzle that leads him onto the trail of the Ripper it feels forced, inappropriate, and beside the point–an over-elaborate scheme to set the wheels of plot in motion.

The novel’s climax disappoints and lacks genuine suspense.

I bought Jack the Ripper to plug a hole in my Sherlock Holmes collection. I’m glad that I read the story, but I wonder now if I should have bothered. Kaye called A Study in Terror the best Holmes versus the Ripper story, but it wasn’t, not for me. Perhaps years of wondering about the story set the bar too high in my mind. The story was too mundane for me, too generic, neither the Ripper nor Holmes.

For Holmes completists only. Ripper fans need not bother.

Originally published here.