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Literature / Dust and Shadow

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Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson is a historical fiction novel by Lyndsay Faye, one of the most recent Sherlock Holmes pastiches in which the Great Detective investigates the Whitechapel Murders.

Unlike many Ripper novels, however, no conspiracies and no fantastical culprits are posited. The result is a dark and gut-wrenching tale as Holmes grows increasingly frustrated with his failure to find the Jack the Ripper and blame for the murders begins to fall upon his shoulders…

This novel provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Aloof Big Brother: Mycroft plays a secondary role in the story.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Averted. Jack is just an ordinary beat policeman. Few historical figures appear in the story aside from the victims and police figures.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Ripper is dead, but so are his six victims. Holmes’s reputation is salvaged, but Mary Ann Monk’s memory has received some damage. Holmes himself feels the case a failure, but Lestrade provides a moment of profound gratitude that mirrors the ending of “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” quite closely.
  • Call-Forward: A few to latter stories in the Canon.
    • Watson mention that Holmes has begun to narrow in on Prof. Moriarty's criminal operations setting up the events in "The Final Problem".
    • The story features Holmes and Watson's introduction to Dr. Moore Agar, who is mentioned in "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot".
    • Holmes uses "Escot" as an alias, a name he will use again when infiltrating Milverton's household in "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton".
  • Darker and Edgier: Than the original Sherlock Holmes stories, but given the antagonist, this is only to be expected.
  • Driven to Suicide: The soldier Holmes initially suspected of being the Ripper kills himself over the shame of having stabbed the first victim, Martha Tabram, in an angry passion. He did not kill her, though no one but Holmes would have worked that one out.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The book is an account of Jack the Ripper's spree by Dr. John H. Watson.
  • Evil Is Petty: The Ripper's grudge against Holmes is because he saw Holmes as arrogant for withholding details on the Ramsden case at the start of the book, which Holmes did out of compassion for the deceased Baron's family.
  • Fanboy: Dr. Moore Agar, who later goes on to be the physician who puts Holmes on vacation in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Ripper acts almost friendly when Holmes and Watson confront him, but his loathing of the world still slips out.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Whether Sherlock Holmes finds Jack the Ripper or not, six women will still be murdered and mutilated.
  • Foreshadowing: At one point Holmes attends one of the Ripper victim's funerals, theorising that the Ripper may be there. Sure enough, an unrecognised but violent policeman appears in the next chapter.
  • Frame-Up:This was the Ripper's plan to defame Holmes, using Tavistock to destroy Holmes's public reputation and leaving Holmes' stolen cigarette case by the final victim's mutilated body to incriminate him. Thankfully Lestrade steps in to prevent this.
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • Bennett's father was a brute who beat his family- the details are unknown, but the man cut the family cat's tail off piece by piece. Bennett mentions having a flashback to seeing the cat's torture when he saw Tabram.
    • The Ripper's ignorant mother relates her son's childhood to Holmes and Watson, explaining that her husband was abusive and that her son eventually "acquired his gift of strength." At the age of eight, he stopped crying, and his mother believed that he could no longer be hurt.
  • Friend to All Children: Holmes. His Intergenerational Friendship with the Baker Street Irregulars is present, and he comforts one of them after he finds one of The Ripper's victims.
    Holmes: "I'm very proud of you."
  • Government Conspiracy: Of a more benevolent kind than in most Ripper fictions, as Mycroft covers up Bennett's identity to avoid public unrest.
  • Heroic BSoD: The very first paragraph of the book portrays Holmes suffering this upon the conclusion of the case.
    Watson: At first it seemed the Ripper affair had scarred my friend Sherlock Holmes as badly as it had the city of London itself.
  • Hide the Evidence: Lestrade removes Holmes' cigarette case from the final murder scene to prevent his Frame-Up and holds off on reporting it, to make time for them to catch the real killer.
  • Historical Domain Character: Largely averted. Sir Charles Warren makes a brief appearance and Inspector Frederick Abberline is mentioned a few times
  • Historical In-Joke: Mary Ann Monk tells a police officer she thinks Prince Albert is Jack the Ripper to persuade him she's a madwoman of no interest, in a reference to one of the more ridiculous Ripperologist theories.
  • Iconic Outfit: Ironically, Holmes and Watson borrow Jack's popular outfit of tophat, cape and cane to explore Whitechapel when dressed as dandies. Utterly subverted with Jack himself, whose generic outfit makes it difficult for eyewitnesses to provide useful identifying characteristics to Holmes. Jack's use of plainclothes also hides his identity as a policeman.
  • Immoral Journalist: Leslie Tavistock who smears Holmes and insinuates that he's the Ripper using facts supplied by the Ripper to destroy Holmes.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Stephen Dunlevy.
  • It's All My Fault: Following a certain point in the case, Holmes holds himself more or less accountable for the subsequent murders, which he feels he could prevent by catching the killer sooner.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: The facts of Holmes's involvement with the case and his own abilities shed an unfavorable light upon him, thanks to the efforts of a muckraking reporter. Having once barely escaped with his very life from a growing mob, Holmes goes into hiding for his own safety.
  • Mythology Gag: Several times, Watson alludes to unwritten cases, as he does in the Canon. (Lyndsay Faye has discussed this habit of his several times in various episodes of the Baker Street Babes podcast.)
  • The Nondescript: Several witnesses who see an unnamed Ripper suspect cannot describe him in much more detail beyond 'ordinary-looking', fair and of average height. This naturally frustrates Holmes, who uses outlandish facts to quickly solve crimes. When Watson sees Bennett after discovering he's the Ripper, he's struck by how non-descript Bennett is, apart from when the rage flashes out.
  • Not So Stoic: Holmes, big time, thanks to the fact that pretty much everything that can go wrong does.
  • Police Are Useless: Not quite but close enough, as per real life. Certainly the opinion held by the Ripper.
  • Pet the Dog: When questioning a prostitute on whether or not someone would have a motive for killing her friend, she replies that it was probably just some random John, and that their clients would just as well kill them as they would kiss their hand. Holmes than states that if any of her clients ever try to harm her, to let him know, so that she could be "Rid of his company".
  • The Profiler: Holmes extrapolates his usual Sherlock Scan to attempt to build the identity of a man he's never met. Naturally, he's shaken by the hitherto-unimagined psychological profile.
  • Reluctant Psycho: In the letter that The Soldier writes to his sister before killing himself, he recalls instances where he displayed rather unsettling behavior.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Inspector Lestrade, Mycroft Holmes, and Major Henry Smith. Infuriatingly subverted by Inspector Fry and Sir Charles Warren, as per historical fact.
  • Red Herring: Several re: the Ripper's identity, but most glaringly Johnny Blackstone.
  • Serial Killer: Jack The Ripper, who ends up killing six women just as was the case in the real life.
  • Shout-Out: Holmes uses the alias of Basil at one point, while disguised as a sailor like the character was in the Disney film.
  • Shown Their Work: The author contacted and/or drew off the research of many Ripperologists, as stated in the acknowledgements.
  • The Sociopath: Holmes comes to believe that the killer is this, despite it being a radical notion for its time. Lestrade himself is dubious of and disturbed by the idea. Holmes is later proven horribly right when he ‘’meets’’ the Ripper face to face.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Holmes mentions repeatedly in the original stories that he uses unusual facts in crimes to unravel them. The Ripper's crimes are noteworthy only in their savagery, without any victim pattern for Holmes to unravel, and all the discretions of the Ripper are frustratingly non-descript. Therefore, Holmes struggles far more than usual to solve the mystery.
  • Title Drop: Holmes refers to all of mankind as simply "dust and shadow" when attending the funeral of one of the victim's funerals, reflecting on life's transience.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Acknowledged and explained by Dr. Watson at the start of chapter one, in order to then assure the reader that the following story is "the entire truth, as it happened to Holmes and myself".
  • Unwitting Pawn: Leslie Tavistock is just a means for the real Ripper to defame Holmes.
  • Victorian London: Featuring all its grime, squalor, and most notorious murderer.
  • World War II: Watson writes the introduction in the July of 1939, grieved at the onslaught of a new war.