Today I am doing something different, that is, something from the twenty-first century.
Following is an interview with the American author Bradley Harper.
Brad and I have been in correspondence for over two years as he has written a novel involving a relatively young Arthur Conan Doyle in the hunt for Jack the Ripper.
Brad is a retired US Army pathologist and had performed multiple forensic examinations before he retired from service five years ago and took up writing.
So, let’s begin.
Q. What gave you the idea for this story? What grabbed you?
First Richard, I would like to thank you for this opportunity. I could not have written the novel without piggybacking off your scholarship and assistance.
But to the point, I read all the Holmes stories the summer I turned thirteen, and I recall crying when I finished the last one. I hungered for more, and the continued popularity of the character shows me I am not alone.
I was idly reading Doyle’s bibliography one day and saw there was a four-year gap between the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, (1886) and the next, The Sign of Four, (1890).
Then I noticed the Ripper murders occurred in the middle of that gap, the late summer and early fall of 1888. I was surprised to learn that Doyle only got twenty-five pounds for Scarlet and was so disgruntled by the multiple rejections he vowed to never pen another.
I decided a story that brought him, reluctantly, into the hunt for the Ripper could provide an explanation for his return to Holmes, why the Ripper suddenly stopped, and why he was never knowingly caught.
Q. Who are some of your other major characters besides Doyle?
There are five other important characters in the story, all of them either actual people, or based upon them. Doyle is joined by Professor Joseph Bell, Doyle’s former professor of Surgery at his medical school in Edinburgh, and Doyle’s model for Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was at one time the clerk for Bell’s service, and admired him greatly. Bell did involve himself in a couple of crimes, the most famous a murder at an estate in Argyle, Scotland, where he performed the earliest study of gunshot wounds that I am aware of.
Q. Who else?
Inspector Abberline of Scotland Yard is frequently on the scene. He had at one time been the senior police inspector in Spitalfields, where the bulk of the murders took place, and was returned there to lead the hunt on the ground. The more I learned of him the more I grew to respect him, and to appreciate the obstacles he faced.
Q. Such as?
There had been a recent influx of Jews from the Continent, fleeing persecution in their homelands, and many in London felt the Ripper had to be a Jew. Their logic being no Englishman could be capable of such brutality. Jews were sometimes attacked on the streets and additional constables from surrounding districts had to be brought in to prevent riots.
Q. Who is the fourth person?
I think my most interesting character is Miss Margaret Harkness. I learned of her in your book, Uncovering Jack the Ripper’s London, and although I initially had her in a minor role, she soon became a full-fledged member of my team.
Q. What is so interesting about her
She was a Feminist and a Socialist, when both were very much in disfavor. She had initially trained as a nurse, but became an author. Her stories involved the working poor, and she moved into the East End so that she could live as her characters did, to add authenticity to her portrayals. She helped organize the Match Girls strike in the summer of 1888, just as the Ripper was beginning.
My favorite Holmes short story is A Scandal in Bohemia, written in 1890 just after Doyle returned to Holmes. In my story, I have Doyle acknowledge that Margaret is his inspiration for the character of Irene Adler.
Q. But what of the Ripper? You’ve made no mention of him.
That was no oversight. Suffice to say my Ripper is based upon a real person, but not one of the suspects commonly discussed. I have learned that people who lean one way or the other, (Patricia Cornwell among others,) are very tied to their suspect. I feared that by choosing any of the “usual suspects,” I would alienate readers who had other ideas
Q. Any final thoughts?
I thought I knew all I needed to from your book, but then we did a tour together, and the result was one of the scenes I am proudest of. I hate to give too much away, but I was fascinated to learn that the time Mary Kelly’s body was being removed coincided with the inauguration of the new Lord Mayor of London. The two events were close enough that many Londoners, when they heard a new victim had been discovered, left the ceremony to be present when Mary’s body was removed. I felt the contrast between the two events was very poignant, and that scene still brings a tear to my eye when I read it.
Q. And the name of your book?
My agent is currently seeking a publisher, so it could yet be changed, but the working title is, A Knife in the Fog.
A DAUNTING PROSPECT?
Thank you, Brad. Before we leave, were you daunted as an American, to write about a British icon like Sir Arthur?
“Terrified! But I felt I was so new to writing, I could always, convincingly, plead ignorance. Thank you for your indulgence.”
The best of British luck to you, Brad.