In 1900, London society is still obsessed with Jack the Ripper and the thrilling, horror-riddled days of his murderous rampage, Ripper stories still “popping up like daffodils in the spring.” In reality, London is growing at an alarming rate at the turn of the century, building everywhere increasing the deafening din of the metropolis: “London was like monster child that ate its mother and never stopped growing.”
Ensconced in his home office, Denton, an American with an infamous past, resists the modern thrust of the city, clinging to his Dickensian sensibilities. An author of some repute, Denton is visited one night by a disturbed, nearly hysterical man, Mulcahy, who describes the gruesome murder of a young woman. Mulcahy claims the killer is none other than Jack the Ripper.
Dubious at first, Denton takes notice of Mulcahy’s outrageous claims when the mutilated body of a young prostitute, Stella Minton, is discovered in an unsavory part of the city. No fan of notoriety, Denton takes his information to the police but is rebuffed by a department too busy to worry over the fate of a fallen woman.
Most men would be discouraged at this point - after all, it isn’t Denton’s business - but this protagonist is made of finer cloth. After an attack in his home following Mulcahy’s intrusion that injures both Denton and his manservant, Atkins, an ex-Fusilier, the police are forced to pay attention to Denton and his concerns over the fate of the prostitute.
It is at this point that the author expands the scope of his novel of murder and morality, escorting the reader into the seamier parts of London, to the pubs, bawdy houses, police departments, bureaucracies and charitable organizations that seek to alleviate the burdens of the disenfranchised. Making the acquaintance of an equally infamous modern woman, the feminist Janet Striker, Denton begins a dangerous journey through the Byzantine records of government agencies and London’s dark alleyways, leading to a nearly fatal confrontation.
Rich with historical detail that brings the time and place to life (Striker’s Society for the Improvement of Wayward Women, Mulcahy’s Photographic Inventorium), Cameron’s novel is both intelligent and compassionate, blending the societal restraints of the era with Denton’s very American personality, his sympathy for the underdog and financial troubles adding to the man’s appeal.
Confronted with the outrages suffered by the poor, Denton is terrified of what he will discover at the end of his investigation but driven by his own compulsion to run the murderer to ground. The result is far more disturbing than a shocking murder: an unveiling of the base underbelly of a growing society that spawns such human detritus as Denton’s target.