Anatomy of Evil by Will Thomas is the seventh Barker & Llewelyn historical mystery, and in London in 1888, who would they seek but the Ripper (available May 12, 2015)?
I’m always up for a clever take on the Jake the Ripper mythos, and who better to take on the famous killer than private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn? Thomas has it in his head to search for the killer himself, but gets caught on a late night outing with a friend by Barker, who is puzzled as to why Llewelyn didn’t let him in on the search. Turns out Barker is happy to help, and as luck would have it, is recruited to act as liaison to Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Department. Navigating the jurisdictional infighting between departments is one thing, but finding a killer who seems to strike at any time, and so brutally, is quite another.
While the search for the Ripper is gruesome fun, and it’s a whirlwind following the investigators as they jaunt through the dark streets of Whitechapel, what fascinated me the most was Llewelyn’s descriptions of his employer. Barker is just as at home among finery as he is among the lowest characters of Whitechapel, even as he recognizes, and ruminates on, his own distance from those that are more unfortunate than he:
“We are given a paradise on Earth, and yet we make it over into the very picture of hell. I wonder if this killer feels that he is releasing these women to a better life than they have been living. I’ve been guilty, lad, of forgetting. I stand in my garden and tend to my plants, while scarcely a mile away women like this, who should be grandmothers and pillars of their neighborhoods offer themselves in the street to strangers for the price of a bed.”
As the duo set out on their investigation (trying not to ruffle feathers in the process), they realize they must inevitably question the very kinds of women that the Whitechapel killer seems to be targeting. While at a pub that sees frequent traffic of prostitutes, Llewelyn makes an offhand comment which Barker is quick to humble him for:
Within the hour, the door opened and four women entered, all in the early stages of middle age, in tatty hats and darned shawls. Unfortunates. I saw them in the streets, making bold and suggestive stares at passerby, but here we were seated with a pint in hand and it was as if they’d been trotted out for our observation.”
“Why is the Whitechapel Killer murdering women like these?” I murmured to my employer. “Does he think he’s doing a public service?”
“Lad,” he admonished in a low voice, “there is no such thing as an ugly woman.”
He was accusing me of being ungallant, of being quicker to give up my seat on the omnibus to an attractive woman than to one who is old or spotted or in some way imperfect. The Guv treated the old and young, the beautiful and the not so beautiful alike. He opened doors for crones as if they were duchesses. As rough as his manner was, I must admit his behavior was sometimes better than mine.
While the labyrinthine search for the killer in their midst is the undeniably exciting focus of this novel, I was enthralled at how the author explored an issue that is always timely, a theme that many a mystery reader will recognize at the hearts of their favorite fictional sleuths and detectives, even among the best homicide detectives featured in shows like The First 48. The premise is this: everyone deserves justice and someone to speak for them in death, from the weakest (both mentally and physically) to the strongest among us. It’s a lesson that can certainly be taken from Cyrus Barker and which doesn’t go unnoticed by his subordinate, Thomas Llewelyn.
The thrill of the hunt is undeniable, but more importantly, the duo must apprehend a diabolical butcherer of the most vulnerable of women, in a time when women could scarcely make a living on their own without a man to offer material comfort, and without putting themselves in the most dangerous of situations. For a thoughtful historical thriller with no shortage of tense moments, Anatomy of Evil certainly fits the bill, bringing a fresh look to much-explored and very real historical crimes.
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