Ripper by Stefan Petrucha is what you’d call a niche read. It solidly rests in the Young Adult genre, while simultaneously catering to mystery-devourers and steampunk-lovers alike. The plot follows teenage detective Carver Young, the newest addition to the New Pinkertons (a fictional spin-off of the real-life Pinkertons) in New York City. Carver uses their futuristic and often steam-powered gadgets and gizmos to track down the infamous Jack the Ripper. Of course, Teddy Roosevelt is present as the police commissioner to yell a lot too. The resulting product is a mishmash of creative ideas defying categorization. Unfortunately, the real question isn’t where do we put this in the library–it’s how on earth does Petrucha fail (even with this goldmine concept)?
The answer is quite simple: the mystery isn’t that great. It takes nearly two thirds of the book before we find out that the serial killer is Jack the Ripper, but the surprise has zero shock value! Readers know this information from the title and jacket description. I appreciate that Carver’s mentor, Albert Hawking, continually emphasizes the importance of sound detective skills over impressive, but ultimately unlikely, preternatural observations à la Sherlock Holmes. In addition, Hawking accuses Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of leaving out details from his Holmes stories to create surprise endings. Petrucha doesn’t follow this advice; in fact, the identity of the killer is easily identifiable by midway through the book. There are no attempts at red herrings to trick the reader. However, many mysteries begin by revealing the murderer and use that information to create suspense. Had Petrucha done the same, I believe he could have created a fantastic mystery. Yet, the easy pacing of the first half becomes offset by a series of bland set pieces and hokey explanations that lead up to a boring reveal.
Petrucha does a better job with the steampunk technology. I liked what he did include, though felt there could have been more purpose behind the technology. Think back to any James Bond movie where 007’s gadgets, each explained at the beginning of the movie, are used to ingenious effect to escape danger along the way. A few devices do get this role, but on the whole the steampunk idea felt more like a gimmick than a truly developed facet of the novel. This perception contributed to my my overall problem with the steampunk: it wasn’t weird enough. It sounds nitpicky, but imaginative, immersive steampunk creates a powerful atmosphere that goes far beyond technology. Ripper is situated in a mostly accurate New York rather than an alternate reality where Jack the Ripper plans to crash a zeppelin into the Chrysler Building. Wouldn’t that be fun?
At the very least, Petrucha creates a likeable hero in Carver Young. His interaction with other characters and his reactions to the twists and turns of the story are believable and sympathetic. Other characters too feel real, and make for a good cast. Hopefully, Carver and friends will get another high concept sequel, but made a little more carefully drawn.
Bottom Line: Alas, what could have been! More attention to the steampunk or mystery elements would have made Ripper a ripping read.
Evan is a learning teenage writer whose ambition is to become a film director someday, but not until he’s published a few books first. In the meantime, he spends his time playing drums in his jazz band 3 AM Groove, writing for the school paper, building sets on stage crew, and trying to perfect his 100 greatest movies of all time list. He does not like long walks on the beach.