Described as “Doctor Who meets Sherlock“, I had high expectations for Jackaby by William Ritter. And while the book was certainly enjoyable, it wasn’t quite the same level of The Doctor or Sherlock Holmes (at least the new Benedict Cumberbatch one). But, I understand where the comparison comes from and it will definitely appeal to young readers who are also fans of those worlds. We’ve got a strange detective, with special abilities that most people find off-putting, and you’ve got the supernatural elements of werewolves and ghosts—definitely the right fodder for Whovians and Sherlockians.
I picked up Jackaby as it was listed as one of my bookclub titles for the Forever Young Adult (FYA) bookclub. However, Jackaby fits more strongly into the 9–12 age range, in terms of complexity of story and difficulty of language. Perhaps it was the expectation of a young adult title from the FYA Bookclub that also contributed to my high expectations.
Don’t let my musings put you off—my expectations do not mean I was disappointed at all—it was quite a fun romp around New England and the characters are worth it.
Also: check out the detailed and gorgeous cover.
“Miss Rook, I am not an occultist,” Jackaby said. “I have a gift that allows me to see truth where others see the illusion—and there are many illusions. All the world’s a stage, as they say, and I seem to have the only seat in the house with a view behind the curtain.”
Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary–including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police–with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane–deny.
Doctor Who meets Sherlock in William Ritter’s debut novel, the first in a series which features a detective of the paranormal as seen through the eyes of his adventurous and intelligent assistant in a tale brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.
From the publisher, Algonquin Young Readers
Jackaby is narrated by Abigail Rook and takes place in the United States in 1892. Abigail is well off and educated, but much more inclined to a life of adventure with her anthropologist father than to parties and fashion and dresses. The book opens with Abigail fleeing boarding school and a dinosaur dig gone wrong to head to the New World. While this is a bit implausible—a young woman in the 1890s being unaccompanied on a passenger vessel—it works as an initial premise.
What really stood out was the humour, sarcasm, and dry wit. The dialogue, although probably not anachronistic, fit the characters perfectly. Abigail gets thrown into an investigation with R.F. Jackaby, despite many residents of New Fiddleham warning her off. She soon finds herself with both a job as an assistant and lodgings in Jackaby’s strange home. I enjoyed getting glimpses of Jackaby’s past, which means there is a strong backstory and hidden tales for future titles, as well as just building a robust landscape.
I appreciated that we had a female “Dr Watson” sidekick as our narrator. Abigail frequently doubts her own abilities, calling herself clumsy, or slow to pick up on Jackaby’s train of thought. But honestly, she balances out the story. Without her keen observations, social tact, and determination, I expect it would just devolve into Jackaby running around as a social outcast. Jackaby is a “Seer”, which means he has supernatural abilities; he can see auras and ultraviolet spectrums, as well as sense things from ordinary objects. He is also a man of science, in a way that reminds me of Benedict’s Sherlock, but in more of a wacky way, like Basil, the Great Mouse Detective. Because Abigail was the narrator, I didn’t really get a strong sense of Jackaby as his own character, instead he felt more of a caricature mashup of Sherlock and The Doctor.
I did enjoy the writing style of William Ritter, humourous while still being detailed and well-paced. Although I don’t know if the story needed to be written in first person, I really liked how determined and plucky Abigail is. The straight-forward nature of the plot, and the tidy conclusion definitely shift the title to more of 9–12 age than a teen title. But the darker elements are probably above middle-grade range. Not to mention that the romantic undertones stay as just a mere hint or romantic tension.
I think that readers of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children would enjoy Jackaby. It seems to have a similar readership level as well as hints of the supernatural.
I did enjoy how Jackaby seems more tied to traditional folklore, legends, and fairytales of the supernatural, instead of the outright fantastical. Overall, the plot was more of a mystery than a supernatural tale. It was certainly a fun diversion and I would read more from William Ritter in the future.