“A fictional super-detective and a notorious real-life serial killer walk into a bar together…”

I don’t know if crime buffs have yet thought up a joke that begins with that line, but this gin joint would likely be in London’s poverty-drenched East End in the 1880s: the sort of place where shady characters might drop in for a peg or pint at any time, even 7 AM, to ward off the cold and other miseries. And the carousing sleuth and murderer would be Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, respectively.

These two men have often faced off in the pages of novels and short stories – and, apparently, in video games too. It’s a fascinating pairing for obvious reasons. They operated on opposite sides of the law in the same metropolis at the same time: Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story appeared in 1887, while the canonical Ripper murders took place in the summer and autumn of 1888.

An entire sub-genre

And if you think the gap between fiction and fact creates a credibility problem, consider this paradox: Holmes, the imagined character, has been such a recognisable, well-loved and widely portrayed figure over the past century that many people think he was an actual person. While the Ripper, who really did exist, has become shadowy, mythical – and sometimes even romanticised – because he was never caught. (A dozen or more authors have written books naming their candidate and pompously declaring “case closed” – the trouble is that they have confidently identified a dozen different people.) So much so that the story has been mined even in science-fiction and fantasy, like in the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold”, which identifies Red Jack as an evil energy force that shifts form over the centuries.

There is no point trying to list all the Sherlock Holmes-vs-Jack the Ripper fiction out there, but the more readable efforts include the novella A Study in Terror, notable for its narrative within a narrative: in the 1960s, ace detective Ellery Queen comes across an old document detailing Holmes’s efforts to solve the London murders. While he reads, Queen conducts a parallel investigation of his own, eventually figuring that Holmes may have been deliberately elusive about the killer’s identity. In other words, here are two celebrated fictional sleuths tangling with a real-life mystery, and with each other, across time and space.

There is also the very enjoyable 1979 film Murder by Decree, notable less for its plot (which draws on a much-rehashed conspiracy theory involving a Royal Family scandal) and more for its atmospheric set design and its cast – Christopher Plummer and James Mason had a grand time playing Holmes and Watson respectively, and the supporting players included such heavyweights as John Gielgud, Genevieve Bujold and Donald Sutherland.

For me, though, Lyndsay Faye’s 2009 novel Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr John H Watson has a very special place in this sub-sub-category of crime writing. This skilled debut manages to be that rare thing, a book that should please both Sherlock Holmes buffs (including the ones who have mixed feelings about other authors stomping on Conan Doyle’s terrain) and Jack the Ripper scholars who like their Ripper-based fiction to be rooted in the facts of the case (even if the “solution” offered is far-fetched).

Joined at the hip?

Dust and Shadow is, of course, told in Dr Watson’s voice, deliberately prim by modern standards – Faye does a fine job of imitating the style of the original stories – but also warm and admiring when he speaks of his brilliant friend, and appropriately repulsed when he sees the bodies left by the unknown killer. The narrative begins with a short prelude set in Herefordshire in 1887 – this makes for a nice Sherlock Holmes mini-adventure in itself, but also serves a purpose that the reader will only learn near the end of the book – and then moves to the summer of the next year. A series of murders and mutilations terrifies Whitechapel. Holmes, naturally, becomes involved.

Perhaps more involved than even he would like to be.

One of the recurring themes in modern serial-killer fiction – such as Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon – is the idea that a psychopath and the detective who pursues him are two sides of the same coin: both geniuses, both deeply disturbed people, one of whom has transformed his darkest impulses from thought into action, while the other is always walking a fine line. “The reason you caught me,” Hannibal Lecter tells Will Graham in Red Dragon, “is because we are just alike.” Three decades later, the creepy TV show Hannibal explored this thought over three seasons.

Faye subtly uses the idea in her novel, without underlining it or indulging in any anachronisms that would take us out of the world of 1880s England (a time when little if anything was known about serial killers and their psychological makeup). Reading Dust and Shadow, it made complete sense to me that if Sherlock Holmes had existed and become involved with the Ripper investigation – prowling Whitechapel’s alleys in disguise at odd hours, frequenting opium dens, employing esoteric methods to conduct an unofficial investigation – someone or the other might suspect HIM of being the murderer.

This is what happens here. Shortly after an encounter with the Ripper that leaves him injured, Holmes finds that an unscrupulous journalist is writing articles damning him. And that the killer might be setting out to implicate him too. This puts our super-sleuth in a race to not just solve the case, and heal his hurt ego, but also to clear his name – and what we see in the process is a vulnerable Holmes and a paternal, protective Watson who takes it upon himself to be more than just a silent admirer and chronicler.

Conan Doyle’s other fictional characters – including Inspector Lestrade and Mrs Hudson – are part of this story, as are the comforting bachelor’s quarters in 221B Baker Street, but so are real-life people from the period, such as George Lusk, head of a Vigilance Committee during the killings, and the much-disliked police commissioner Sir Charles Warren. The book’s third “hero” – a young woman named Mary Ann Monk, who collects valuable information for Holmes in the East End – was an actual (if very peripheral) figure in the Ripper investigation, but is fleshed out into a spirited and resourceful character here.

History, his story

Apart from its storytelling merits, this book can serve as a lesson to many historical-fiction authors in how background detail and attention to language can bring internal logic and credibility even to a fantasy narrative. When Holmes goes undercover in Whitechapel, we have no trouble believing that someone with his powers of observation would soon be able to acquaint himself with every foul nook and dark cranny of the impossibly maze-like East End of the 1880s – a place that in real life confounded the efforts of a large police force and helped the anonymous murderer get away with his crimes.

A tour de force passage in this respect occurs near the end when Holmes interrogates a disoriented and scared witness who followed the Ripper to his house but has no idea exactly which labyrinthine part of Whitechapel he was stumbling through. By asking a series of questions, asking the witness to remember landmarks, the width of this or that lane, the nature of the traffic on it, and so on, Holmes unerringly arrives at almost the exact address. Riveting though this passage is on its own terms for a lover of detective stories (or Sherlock Holmes’s methods), it becomes even more so when you study the actual geography of the period (Faye provides a map too) and realise that there is nothing fictional about the details of the route being discussed.

Dust and Shadow did two things for me. First, speaking as a longtime amateur Ripperologist who has been fascinated not only by the case but also by the huge range of reactions it has spawned over the decades, it works as a good Jack the Ripper story, shorn of the sensationalism and the factual errors that have littered even many non-fiction books. I think authors like Philip Sugden and Donald Rumbelow – among the most scrupulous Ripper scholars – would have approved of it.

(Incidentally I first came across Faye’s writing via her plaintive and unsettling short story “The Sparrow and the Lark”, told in the voice of Mary Jane Kelly, the last of Jack the Ripper’s victims. You’ll find that story – along with “A Study in Terror” and many other worthies – in Otto Penzler’s anthology Jack the Ripper: Fact, Fiction, Legend.)

Second, as someone whose reading of Conan Doyle’s original Holmes tales has been less than comprehensive (I devoured many of them at one go as a young teen, and somehow never revisited them), this book stoked a desire to rediscover some of those stories, particularly the longer ones. Not just to return to the world of Dr Watson and his moody flat-mate, but also to see – and this will sound blasphemous to Holmes purists – how the originals compare with Faye’s terrific reimagining.