Jackaby! How can I review this book? How can I explain it?
Okay, let's start with the obvious, the superficial, and the required. It's by William Ritter, his first book. I received a review copy from Netgalley. It's an historical detective novel about a supernatural detective. Our narrator is Abigail Rook, who ran away from home to have Adventures but found they are not just lying about waiting for people to pass by. She finds herself unemployed in New Fiddleham, New England, in need of work and reluctant to go home to be a good girl on her family's estate. Miss Rook happens into a job as an assistant to an unorthodox investigator and finds herself caught up in a series of mysterious murders.
Okay, next let's go with the overall impression: charming. Light for a murder story, fluffy for a supernatural story in historical New England. Jackaby is an oddball, absentminded professor type in the way of Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who, and Abigail is determined to be his Watson/Companion. The premise is adorable, Abigail is just the kind of smart-girl-escapes-boarding-school you want from your story.
There are flaws, though. And I'm afraid there are kind of a lot of them. But they're all kind of superficial! Like, the characters sometimes lapse into modern speech, and when a character explains a sequence of events to the detective, they start to sound a lot more like the narrator of a book than a person talking. And there are less linguistic bits, like how Miss Rook develops an instant (like, absolutely instant) liking for a certain young man that is made more of than it really deserves. And how everyone is talking all the time about what a proper young lady should and shouldn't do, but Abigail is determined to Go Her Own Way!
And Jackaby himself, who is not quite the genius you quite want him to be. He's like Doctor Who if you removed the Sherlock Holmes from him and just left a kind of ADD guy who has a LOT of institutional knowledge about the supernatural. He's a Great Man, but I'm not sure he deserves the title.
BUT. All this, and I really enjoyed it. I was taking notes on the things that annoyed me, and I was charmed. There are many clever moments, many pleasant little notes where Abigail makes friends with a ghost or debates with Jackaby the merits of throwing books when one needs a projectile. There's the toad you shouldn't stare at, and the duck who keeps the archives. Abigail's determination to be game for anything is really endearing, even when her yearning for Adventure starts to wear on you (how many dead bodies do you look at before you start to get a more balanced notion of Adventure?).
I think my overall impression of the book is that it's a great book written by a very young writer who's still ironing out the kinks. You can see where there's a series being set up here, though there are no loose ends or cliffhangers to annoy you. And you know what? I guarantee you I'll read the next one in the series, and I'd bet cash money that the first three or five books William Ritter writes will get better and better, and in a year or two, he's going to be a favorite.
So, Jackaby. There it is. I thought I was going to say I didn't like it, but the truth is that, for all its flaws, I kind of loved it. Go figure.