Book Review: Whitechapel-The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes by Bernard J. Schaffer (@ApiarySociety)

Though I realize it will be considered blasphemous to say so, I actually have never read a Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Growing up, my dad would watch the movies—all 18 times a week HBO would play them—and I found myself interested in the stories. However, it wasn’t until the 1985 Young Sherlock Holmes (critically panned, but a classic to me) that I became absolutely enthralled with the characters. If that admission loses my credibility for this review, then so be it, but I wouldn’t hold that against this book and deprive yourself of a great read.

When I first talked about Whitechapel with author Bernard J. Schaffer a couple of months ago, he said that his goal was to show readers a version of Sherlock Holmes that they’d never seen before. Mission accomplished. Interestingly, the story is told through the perspective of Dr. John Watson rather than the iconic super sleuth. By doing so, we’re also given a thorough view into the complicated life of Holmes’s most loyal and trusted sidekick. When Watson interacts with Holmes, Sherlock is a beaten and broken man who has become complacent in the ways of deduction, and is losing the struggle with his drug habit. He no longer sees the challenge in detective work, and he has grown belligerent towards his dearest friend. This leads Watson to seek his day in the sun and attempt to catch The Ripper himself, while the rest of London cries for their hero to rise again.

Mr. Schaffer’s greatest feat with this book is in his extraordinary character development. Perhaps none more so than of notorious butcher, Jack the Ripper. Being that the real Ripper was never identified, Schaffer opted to work from a blank canvas and create him from scratch rather than assign blame to one of the actual documented suspects. Going down that path required a great deal of homework, including speaking with an FBI analyst, and the story is richer because of it. Quite literally, the devil is in the details. As gruesome as the real Whitechapel murders were, Schaffer has recreated them in horrific fashion. In other words, if you’re a squeamish reader, you may want to skip this one.

Because I am not an expert on the Sherlock Holmes universe, I was able to sink my teeth into this meaty story and savor it for what it is—a fantastic piece of quality writing and storytelling. Diehard fans of Doyle’s work may not regard it so fondly, however, but I don’t get the feeling that pleasing them was the author’s intent. It is obvious that Schaffer is knowledgeable regarding the work of Doyle, and that he is a fan. Though he plays with borrowed characters using the rules of his own sandbox, they are all handled delicately and with the utmost respect.

As much as I enjoyed this book, it does not go entirely without complaint. The dream match-up of Holmes versus The Ripper is the star attraction of this story, but their eventual encounter is all too brief. It’s like anticipating Freddy versus Jason after a thorough build-up, only to have their final showdown reserved for the last 60 seconds of film. And while that aspect is a bit of a letdown, I still came away from this book completely satisfied. Why? Because the writing is stupendous. Let me say that again, STUPENDOUS. Every character, from the most prominent to the lowest bit player, is deeper than an ocean. There are scenes in this book that I will never forget, including an ending that brought tears to my eyes.

Schaffer is as much a teacher as he is an entertainer. His books are both treasure and textbook. Any aspiring writer should become familiar with his work and soak it all in. He’s got me as a fan for life. Treat yourself, buy this book.

Q & A with Whitechapel author, Bernard J. Schaffer

[DAVID K. HULEGAARD]: With a few weeks separated from the release of your book, how are you feeling about the reaction its receiving?

[BERNARD J. SCHAFFER]: Incredibly grateful. There are already so many Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper products available to people that to have them even notice mine is a tremendous honor.

[DKH]: Setting out to write a story for a character as well-known and beloved as Sherlock Holmes must have been an indescribable challenge. How influential was Arthur Conan Doyle’s original work on you as a writer—Sherlock Holmes or otherwise?

[BJS]: My first introduction to the character was through film. When I was a kid, Saturday’s were dedicated to cartoons in the morning, then a Kung Fu flick, a Godzilla movie, and a monster movie in the late afternoon. Every once in a while they threw in a Hammer film, and I distinctly remember watching Peter Cushing play Holmes in Hound of the Baskervilles as a small boy.

When I was fourteen, I bought a two-volume collection of ACD’s entire Holmes canon. The first thing I read was The Final Problem because I wanted to see how Holmes ended up. So there you have it. My first exposure to Holmes was a horror movie and my first reading was about his violent death. It’s really no wonder I wound up writing WHITECHAPEL, now that I think about it.

[DKH]: At any point were you concerned about potential backlash from the Sherlock faithful?

[BJS]: There was an incident early on with one of the Sherlock fan websites where the editor was apoplectic with outrage at my abuse of Jack the Ripper. That kind of threw me. I mean, he was okay with me turning Holmes into a drug addicted hermit and Lestrade into an abusive whoremonger, but how dare I give Saint Jack a sexual aspect and be so damn gory.

I tried to shrug it off.

[DKH]: You told me in a previous interview that the way society had seemed to romanticize the real Jack the Ripper was disturbing for you. Were you at all worried that readers may not view him as the villain in this story?

[BJS]: Actually, by the end of the story I had great pity for Monty. In real life, the “Good” guys and the “Bad” guys are really not all that different on the inside. It’s the choices we make that define us.

[DKH]: Was it difficult for you to get inside his head and create a cold-blooded killer?

[BJS]: At first, very much so. I could not wrap my head around why anyone would commit the atrocities that he had. It’s very different than creating a bad guy from scratch. You can build him into anything you want. I was looking at a finished product (The Ripper Crimes) and trying to figure out how the hell he’d put the thing together.

The FBI analyst for the BSU was very helpful in that regard. I could not understand for the life of me why Jack was taking specific body parts and arranging his victims a certain way. I was looking for some sort of scientific answer. They told me that there wasn’t one and that it only had to make sense to the killer.

[DKH]: You did an unbelievable amount of homework in preparation for this book. What was the main draw for you to reach into the past for this case and put a new spin on it?

[BJS]: It was out of necessity. My wife and I were separated and I was living in a small, run-down apartment. My personal life had collapsed and the two or three day stretches of not seeing my kids were tearing me apart inside.

I remember the day I started. I took out several large pieces of poster board and drew calendars on them for the months of August 1888 through December of that same year. I plotted out every event that seemed significant to the Ripper case so that I had a structured timeline to set my story in. Those were invaluable in keeping me on track.

[DKH]: On a personal note, will the word “cunny” ever be scrubbed free from my brain? 🙂

[BJS]: I’m including a secret message in GUNS OF SENECA 6 that will instantly scrub that word and all residual memories of Whitechapel’s horrors. You will instantly feel peaceful and at one with the universe…right up until the cannibal hillbillies show up.

[DKH]: There is a powerful scene in the book where a drunken Lestrade stumbles into an old church and has an epiphany as the veiled women wait for their sister. I don’t know if you had intended that scene to be so moving, but it had an impact on me. What influenced your version of Lestrade’s character?

[BJS]: Lestrade was a traditional Doyle character, but always shown as a foil for Holmes. He’s the stuffy old Englishman too caught up in his own pretension to see the clues right in front of his face.

The Lestrade in my book is a cop who would actually work in a place like Whitechapel. There is simply no way a cop can exist in that environment and not begin to reflect it. The people you deal with wouldn’t understand you and you’d be ineffective.

[DKH]: As a huge fan of Moz myself, I was pleasantly entertained by the numerous references to the music of Morrissey. Even the more subtle ones you’d tucked in there, such as Holmes’s declaration that he would never marry. Why was Morrissey such a strong influence on you during the creation of the book?

[BJS]: Nice catch. Morrissey was really the soundtrack to Whitechapel, and I would play his concert dvd endlessly while writing it. His persona of being committed to being alone and yet having all these frustrated feelings of longing gave me a very clear idea of Sherlock Holmes’ mindset. And probably mine as well, at that point in time.

[DKH]: So, what’s up next for the ultra-talented Bernard J. Schaffer?

[BJS]: A sci-fi western called GUNS OF SENECA 6 should be along shortly. I love this book and can’t wait for people to read it. I took all of the things and people I love about the Old West, threw them into a remote planet in outer space and shook it up like a Christmas globe. After the rigid structure of WHITECHAPEL where I was bound by so many rules and times and dates, I just needed something where I could be completely unbound. I’m telling you, the Old West in outer space is badass.

Before I go, I’d like to thank you for having me back again. I truly appreciate the support. Best of luck to you and your readers.

[DKH]: You are welcomed back here ANY time!

Buy Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes for KINDLE, NOOK, or PAPERBACK.

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