Jackaby by William Ritter

I greatly enjoyed Jackaby from start to end. What we have is a sharply written historical mystery touched with a bit of paranormal. Although suitable for middle grade and older readers, the book never panders to or writes down to its audience.

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Story: Young Abigail Rook, daughter of a paleontologist, left her family in fin de siècle England in search of following her adventurer father’s footsteps. But it wasn’t all she hoped and eventually she finds herself fresh off the boat from Europe and in a sleepy American New England town looking for employment. Answering an ad for an assistant, she meets up with the peculiar young man, investigator R. F. Jackaby. She quickly becomes embroiled in the supernatural side of life as she encounters ghosts, goblins, trolls, and other creatures from myths and legends. As she helps Jackaby solve a series of murders, it becomes clear she may just have found her life of adventure after all.

Many comparisons will be drawn to a couple of notable TV series (the inevitable Sherlock and Dr. Who mash up) but I never had that vibe at all. This first book stood on its own for me and was a very pleasurable and original read. If anything, I would liken it more toward Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood and Co. series since in both we have Victorian era young investigators of the paranormal.

The read is very fast and definitely not dense despite being so intriguingly written. Abigail Rook is straightforward in contrast to Jackaby’s eccentricity. But Jackaby isn’t a cipher, either, and has more humanity than many of his archetypes are given in these types of books.

There are great surprises – such as an intriguing chapter whose only content is a sentence to the effect of, “this chapter removed by the request of my employer, R.F. Jackaby”. As well, we aren’t dealing with the typical vampire or werewolf myths and Ritter enjoys turning so many of them on their heads.

Where Jackaby shines are the subtle references to other detective stories throughout the ages. Readers won’t notice them at first until someone points them out – and then it becomes a fun game of easter egg hunts to discover the hidden secrets throughout. A great example comes from book 2 (A Beastly Bones) at the end of the first chapter when Abigail writes: “Some girls work in shops or sell flowers. Some girls find husbands and play house. I assist a mad detective in investigating unexplained phenomena – like fish that ought to be cats but seem to have forgotten how. My name is Abigail Rook, and this is what I do.” (a take on Dragnet’s Joe Friday monologue).

In all, what we have is an engaging and easy-to-follow paranormal historical mystery with enough layers and depth to intrigue adults but also keep kids entertained from the action and adventure. Highly recommended.

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