Thursday, October 24, 2013

Review: Letters From a Murderer by John Matthews

When the Ripper murders abruptly ceased after the autumn of 1888, the assumption could only be made that the murderer had either died, gone to prison on an unrelated charge, or left London for new grounds. This novel is based on the latter theory, that the Ripper may have continued his slaughters in 1891 NYC. Investigating is a capable Italian-American NYPD detective and a criminal analyst from London who had worked on the original Ripper case.

Naturally, there have been many comparisons to The Gangs of New York but this novel attracted me after recently being obsessed with BBCA's historical drama Copper, which has it's own comparisons to The Gangs of New York as well. Being a gritty 19th century crime novel set in NYC, I thought this sounded like a good, similar type novel to help wean me through my withdraw after Copper was cancelled even after being hailed as the most popular BBCA show ever. However, that's about where the similarities ended. This novel can’t help but stand on its own.

Being a Ripper novel really set it apart from either The Gangs of New York or Copper. Ripper novels have perhaps been a little overdone and though there have been many theories about the Ripper appearing in America, setting this in NYC provided something new and allowed the author more creative freedom.

One thing really bothered me though, and that was the use of the myth about name changes due to immigration officers who couldn't spell or pronounce foreign names. Any knowledgeable genealogist will be able to tell you why this persistent tale is so false. For starters, immigration officers - even in history - were often multilingual. Do people really think immigration departments in history didn't make use of translators? Secondly, immigration officers worked off written documentation compiled at the port of departure. I don't know why people seem to think that in history, documentation wasn't a requirement for immigrants. Lastly, the incorrect recording of one’s name during immigration does not mean one’s name was forcibly changed. When we see this in genealogy, it's considered an error, not a legal name change. Of course, many immigrants did anglicize their names but it was of their own choosing and typically occurred after the point of immigration.

I have seen this myth appear in several novels but this is the first time I've seen it in historical fiction and frankly, a historical novelist should really know better. I don't expect an author writing a contemporary novel to do historical research but I do expect it of a historical fiction author so to include such a myth just strikes me as sloppy. Of course, I was able to get passed this. It was one sentence in the whole book so I got over it and enjoyed the story as a whole.

There's a lot going on in this novel, there's many twists and turns to keep you guessing and many subplots, both the main characters have interesting back stories dealing with issues unrelated to the Ripper case, so it's not just a simple murder mystery or Ripper-hunt. Supposedly the first in a series, I look forward to the next book from this author.

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