It is Chicago 1893. Inspector Alastair Ransom of the Chicago Police Department has been shot while
capturing the infamous Phantom of the Fair - who seems to be killing people close to Ransom. The inspector is on the operating table, and doctors are working to save his life. The man he
apprehended, Waldo Denton, is arrested.
But during Ransom's recovery, Denton is released because of insufficient evidence, and because CPD's Chief Nathan Kohler is Ransom's sworn enemy. When Ransom hears about this, he resigns in outrage and starts to stalk Denton.
For his part, Denton seems to be unconcerned, and the killings continue until Ransom's partner is murdered as well.
All this feels like the end of a book, and so it is: the last 95 pages of the story apparently
began in the previous book. In the first six chapters of this book, that storyline comes to an end and a new one begins about a killer who butchers children. At the end of chapter five, Ransom even gets a new job
- but at the start of chapter six, he is reinstated as an inspector and the new job is never mentioned again.
This weird decision is a shame, because otherwise Shadows in the White City could stand alone as a fine historical detective novel. However, Walker's writing style contains so much repetition that most of the previous book's plot can be pieced together, although that might not be intentional on the writer's part. Walker
gives constant small reminders about what happened a few pages or chapters ago, or about the main characters' relationships or feelings towards each other. During the first 95 pages, this is actually a blessing, but during the rest of the book it is mostly unneeded.
The main character of the book is Inspector Alastair Ransom, a large, middle-aged, world-weary detective who has quite a large macho ego and emotional scars from his past. He is the main narrator of the latter
(the main) story. He has quite a reputation as a dangerous man, the detective
"who always gets his man."
The book also features two important female characters: Dr. Jane Francis and her daughter, Gabrielle Tewes. For some reason, which is explained in the first chapters to the characters but alas not to the reader, Jane leads a secret double life as Dr. James Phineas Tewes, who is a phrenologist, a doctor, and an electrical healer. Dr. Tewes is also publicly Gabrielle's father, and Jane is Dr. Tewes's sister, therefore Gabrielle's aunt. Jane is a very empathic person who becomes very compassionate toward
the homeless. On the other hand, she does not believe in the suffragettes' movement and has apparently even tried to get her daughter to leave
it. She is frustrated that she cannot practice her phrenology and medicine openly. In a couple of chapters, she is the point-of-view character.
Gabrielle is a fifteen-year-old girl who is studying medicine, but at the start of the main tale she begins to work for the police department as a clerk and in the morgue. Her mother would like her to continue studying medicine, and they have a few fights over it. She is a staunch believer in women's right to vote. She looks up at Ransom as a father figure and even hints that Jane and Ransom should get married.
There are other interesting characters in the book: Ransom's best friend, Philo, who is a photographer
(usually for newspapers); Ransom's other friend, Dr. Christian Fenger, who is the head of the morgue and the local hospital; and many colorful homeless people.
Even though this is a historical novel, some of the characters have modern mindsets. For example, Jane is Ransom's lover, but apparently they have no interest in marriage. This is a modern concept because unmarried but sexually active women in the 17th century were automatically regarded as prostitutes and treated as such. Jane might be a widow, but that is never revealed. Also, the characters show
a great deal of compassion towards the homeless people, also unusual for that time period.
The main plotline follows the hunt for the person who is butchering children in the most gruesome way possible. One of the victims is a
senator's granddaughter, and the senator offers a hefty reward to Ransom, Dr. Fenger and Chief Kohler if they will bring the killer to the
senator's own brand of justice. This drives a wedge of mistrust between Ransom and Fenger, who is
conducting the autopsies in the case. Soon other murdered children are found, and the whole city is looking for someone to pay. Ransom does his best fighting his
chief, beating up informers, and listening to fanciful tales from the homeless. Then the doctors come to the horrifying conclusion that the killer might be eating his victims.
The book contains rather gruesome mental images of corpses and some of the living, too. An atmosphere of despair and paranoia hangs
drapes a noir feeling over the city and its inhabitants.
The first six chapters have a cast of point-of-view characters, while the second story
features Ransom almost exclusively as the POV character, so the transition is quite jarring. I highly recommend reading the first book in the series before this one.