Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Shakespeare's Ripper: Templar Knights, East End Frights

'You are the first,' a shadowy brother whispers to a terrified actress before grasping his large hands around her neck and throttling her before dissecting the young girls body to mimic the crimes of Jack the Ripper. 

So begins Naomi Asher Wallace's novel blending the unsolved mystery of the East End's most diabolic denizen Jack the Ripper with a modern Shakespearean tale of shadowy Masonic lore. While the novel is admittedly inspired by Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and borrows hypothesis from the Johnny Depp film, From Hell, and offers its own Shakespearean revelations, the delight of this mystery lies in the understated charm of the novel's academic protagonist, brainy but unlucky in love Dr Arden James and her American Theatre student protegé Charlie Leder

Opening up Shakespearean London like an insider tour guide, the novel's stagey protagonists sleuth in London's lower caverns of the Thames and Globe theatre.  The passionate students continue their cat and mouse love interest in an annex of the London School of Economics where, Dr James confesses a little possess√≠vely that Leder is her sole pupil; as bars and bridges are scoured, London is revealed the way a well meaning but mysterious Good Samaritan may take an American student under their wing.
Clearly mortified and distancing herself from loud and brash American student, Mary Jo, Dr James takes her magnifying glass and wide eyed student and sets to track down her unpublished academic essay which as gone missing from the archives of Shakespeare's Globe. The gift in Asher's writing is that you feel Dr Arden's sense of outrage and want the essay back for her.

The side characters of Mary Jo and the undercover clutzy cop Peter feel like real life walk ons from musicals of a bygone era, with undercover lover Peter speaking in a Dick Van Dyke/Sam Wellerian mockney (Blast!) and Mary Jo speaking in a voice which would make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. The comedy works.
At one point you may be forgiven for hoping Mary Jo is the next victim of the accursed 'brothers'. However the understated and humble tone of Dr Arden and her naive but insightful sidekick charts the story's course and we are coaxed into James and Leder's love story and hidden back alleyways around the Thames as they hunt for that missing thesis.

Although at times heavy in plot which suggests the power of the Templar Knights as Masonic puppet masters from the crusades and Elizabethan era through to now, Shakespeare's Ripper is full of intrigue about potential divisions within the secret society which adds to a palpable narrative: is an extremist religious zealot stalking the back streets casting sinister designs and perverting the cause of sacred Masonic secrets?

Careful not to offend (excusing any possibility of Masonic involvement in the Jack the Ripper murder), the dense plot is given vibrancy and wit by the solidarity of the two relentless students while Mary Jo offers stand alone comic relief and steals many a scene, a la Bronson Pinchot in Beverly Hills Cop.

If people have quibbles about Dan Brown taking poetic license with the facts, it hasn't affected his sales and Shakespeare's Ripper is an entertaining ride through the centuries, a winner featuring enduring wit and a sequel would not be out of place and surely find its own slot in a crowded thriller marketplace.


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