Victorian-era London’s seedy settings have provided rich backdrops for crime stories, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Euan MacPherson’s British novel, City of the Dreadful Night, is an historical novel that makes full use of the setting, conflating the Jekyll/Hyde dynamic of a man who stalks London’s grimy East End and the murders blamed on Jack the Ripper, using many facts from the actual 1888 cases, including victims’ names and details from the grisly killings.
The protagonist here is Harry Ramsay, a detective working for the famous Pinkerton Agency in the U.S., who arrives in London following the trail of a suspect in the murder of a New York socialite. The plot twists and turns from there, and Ramsay finds himself beaten, stabbed and knocked out repeatedly as he stumbles like a pushy, inelegant American into situations fraught with danger.
Ramsay ends up befriending a prostitute who helps him navigate the dingy underground scene, and he eventually falls for her. He also strikes up a friendship with a police officer assigned, to work with him, albeit reluctantly. The two spend the book trading barbs.
This is a fast-paced jumble of a narrative that opens with a hard-to-follow flood of characters. But once readers acclimate to the cast and the quick turnover of attacks on Ramsay and various murders, it settles into a rhythm that picks up speed towards the climax. The author’s deep knowledge of and familiarity with the setting and London policing adds authenticity.
For American readers, the London coppers’ constant belittling of the “Wild West” mentality and uncouthness of U.S. law enforcement can become tedious. Although the British police are also maligned—depicted as slow-moving and ineffectual—this view of America from the UK perspective is notable.
Nonetheless, once the story gets rolling, it delivers. Ultimately, MacPherson’s tale is a worthwhile addition to the dark literature of Victorian England.
Also available as an ebook.