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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

Victorian Violence

Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, and the next year Arthur Conan Doyle published A Study in Scarlet, the first novel to feature Sherlock Holmes–both works set in the heart of London. And in September of 1888, the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper began a two-month long crime spree in the Whitechapel district of London.

What amazes me about this coincidence of time and place is not that these three characters–and make no mistake, Jack the Ripper has become pop culture character much more than a real live human–are still famous. Rather, it is that all three of them continue to generate not merely adaptations but genuinely new creative works of art almost 130 years later. The characters have taken on lives separate from their original contexts, so that Sherlock Holmes is now solving crimes in modern day New York in CBS’s Elementary, Jekyll/Hyde is a member of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and The Ripper has shown up in as strange a location as an episode of Doctor Who. And their shared setting of time and place has also led to them to end up in many of the same fictional worlds together.

Am I making too much of this–will Tony Soprano (1999), Harry Potter (1997) and, I dunno, Monica Lewinsky (1998) all be showing up together in the Great American Novel of 2120? Frankly, I doubt it. So what is it about these three, or perhaps more specifically the late Victorian period from which they sprang, that makes them continue to speak to us? The three books we’re looking at today each make an attempt at answering that question, while at the same time participating in the continuing line of fabulous works based on these characters.

Sylvain Cordurie’s Sherlock Holmes and the Vampires of London is much the most light-weight of these books, and if it weren’t for the Holmes name, I doubt I would have picked it up at all–although that in itself says something about the power of the Holmes character. Both Cordurie’s graphic novel and Sarah Pinborough’s Mayhem offer superficially supernatural explanations for their characters–Holmes is needed to fight off a vampire infestation in London and Jack the Ripper is a manifestation of a supernatural evil that has been brought to London by an unwitting host.
But both of these explanations are really metaphors for the shockingly visceral and anonymous crimes that began to proliferate in London during this period. As Mayhem makes clear, The Ripper was only one of many unknown murderers who preyed on the underclasses of the city. And of course we continue to be obsessed with this idea of anonymous serial killers, and the terrifying nature of vast urban areas teeming with poor people. Late Victorian London just happened to be one of the first cities to encounter this pressure, and so had a head start on creating fictional and non-fictional demons to fear.
Daniel Levine’s Hyde, meanwhile, while certainly interested in London’s surge in crime, is more focused on Victorian sexual mores. In Levine’s telling, Edward Hyde is not the evil side of Jekyll, but the sexually liberated side. Here, he mines both hints from the original novella, and the traditions of many previous adaptations. In a nod to the cinematic Hydes–Levine even name-checks Victor Fleming, the director of the 1941 film of the novella–Hyde’s life revolves around his ambiguous relationship with a young prostitute of whom he is very protective.  And again, this issue of sexual repression and sexual liberation has only grown more potent over the past century, so it is no wonder that Hyde remains popular.
There is much more to Levine’s novel than this issue. As I say in my review below, I think it is in nearly every respect actually a superior work of art to Stevenson’s–which is no small claim from me, as I have been a devoted fan of the novella for more than 20 years. But the desire to offer an explanation for Jekyll/Hyde’s power, like the desire by Pinborough and Cordurie to do the same for Holmes and The Ripper, is a key entry point, and makes all three of these works excellent recommendations especially for teens who are already fans of the originals or one of their many spinoffs.

* LEVINE, Daniel. Hyde. 448p. Houghton Harcourt. Mar. 2014. Tr $24. ISBN 9780544191181.

levine hyde 200x300 Victorian ViolenceAdult/High School–Though The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been retold and reimagined countless times, Levine separates his novel by delving deeply into the original text and drawing out all of the hints, implications, and loose ends in the story to create an even more plausible, more energetic, and more powerful work than Stevenson’s justly classic novella. Levine’s novel revolves around a brilliantly subtle characterization of Edward Hyde–not, as Dr. Jekyll claims in Stevenson’s work, the “evil” side of Jekyll, but a suppressed second personality, created by Jekyll’s psyche to combat the sexual and emotional abuse heaped upon him by his father. Jekyll unleashes the confused and psychologically tortured Hyde in order to experience the sexual side of his personality, which he has otherwise repressed to the point of impotence. The interplay between the personalities of Hyde and Jekyll–Hyde can see everything Jekyll does, but Jekyll can actually control Hyde’s actions at times–troubles Hyde, but he also relies on Jekyll to show him his purpose in life. Hyde and Jekyll’s precarious double life becomes complicated when an MP named Sir Danvers Carew becomes overly interested in Jekyll’s psychological research,  but the real troubles begin when Hyde realizes that there may be another personality lurking within their shared body. Levine’s novel is exquisite–layered and thematically complex while remaining true to the story’s roots as a mystery thriller. Teen readers of that genre–especially those with a Victorian bent, such as Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist (S & S, 2009)–should be enthralled. Meanwhile fans of Stevenson’s story–-which has never lacked for teenaged readers–will be pleasantly surprised by Levine’s ingenious take.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA  

PINBOROUGH, Sarah. Mayhem. 320p. Jo Fletcher: Quercus. 2014. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781623650865; ebk. ISBN 9781623650872.

mayhem by sarah pinborough 206x300 Victorian ViolenceAdult/High School–“And to think she had been afraid of Jack the Ripper.” On October 2, 1888, at the very height of the Ripper’s terror of London, a woman’s torso was found at the construction site of the not-yet-completed Scotland Yard, and the police subsequently investigated several similar murders. Due to the entirely different modus operandi, the crimes were not linked to the Ripper, leading many to believe that there was a second serial killer roaming the streets of London at the time. From these facts, Pinborough draws out a supernatural thriller in which the Ripper is merely a symptom of the deadly mayhem caused by a malign spirit. The novel centers on police surgeon Dr. Thomas Bond and Detective Henry Moore–both real life figures–who are intent on solving both cases. Dr. Bond, who is given first-person narration, is by far the more obsessed of the two, and as the death count mounts he sinks further into an opium addiction that paradoxically paves the way for a break in the case. Meanwhile, readers get glimpses of several other key players, especially Aaron Kosminski, a young Polish immigrant gifted–or cursed–with a gruesome second sight.  Pinborough’s refreshing new angle on Jack the Ripper entirely revives Victorian London, especially through her deeply sensory prose. The second half of the plot flags a bit, partially due to an unconvincing coincidence, but the novel’s early forward momentum holds more than enough interest to see the book through.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

CORDURIÉ, Sylvain. Sherlock Holmes and the Vampires of London. tr. from French. illus. by Laci and Axel Gonzalbo. 96p. Dark Horse. Feb. 2014. pap. $17.99. ISBN 9781616552664.

holmes vampires 233x300 Victorian ViolenceAdult/High School–In this relentlessly silly but thoroughly fun mash-up, Sherlock Holmes finds himself in a triangular face-off against a group of semi-officially sanctioned vampires on the one hand and a rogue, apparently psychotic vampire on the other.  The vampire clan, led by Selymes, has deep ties to the British government, reaching all the way to Queen Victoria, but those ties are threatened by the activities of a vampire named Owen Chanes, who has been on a feeding frenzy of low-level government operatives. So Selymes hires Sherlock to hunt down Chanes, using Watson and his wife, Mary, as hostages, but in typical Holmesian fashion, Sherlock seeks a way to play the vampires off each other and win the day for the humans. Cordurié and Laci give readers several strong reasons to suspend their disbelief:  Laci’s incredibly detailed, gritty illustrations of Victorian London, featuring a Sherlock with a much more hardened, lined, and frankly old face than we’ve come to expect; Cordurié’s wry humor, as when Sherlock abruptly pivots from disbelief to belief in vampires without a backward glance; and a fun, fast-moving plot that leaves little time for second guessing. This graphic novel is probably more for Holmes aficionados than for vampire fans, but teen lovers of both will be especially pleased.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

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About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark

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