The story of Jack the Ripper is a gift that keeps on giving for crime fiction. There is a long list of Ripper-based fiction and investigation and involvement of famous authors going back to Arthur Conan Doyle and including, recently, the likes of Alan Moore and Patricia Cornwall. So it may seem like a fraught or at least overdone world to plunge into. But in her debut People of Abandoned Character, Claire Whitfield does so anyway and with some interesting results.
Susannah Chapman moves back to London from Reading after her grandmother dies, intent on becoming a nurse. But before long she is married to a charismatic young doctor, fired from her position (because she is married) and on a very different trajectory. It is only days after a whirlwind and exciting honeymoon that Susannah discovers the darker side to her husband and begins to wonder whether she has not made a terrible mistake. And soon after that the Ripper murders start and Susannah starts to suspect that her husband may be involved.
While People of Abandoned Character takes place over the time of the Ripper murders and on the extremely mean streets of Whitechapel, it is best to call it Ripper-adjacent. Whitfield is really telling a story of an abusive relationship, one that involves violence, both verbal and physical, gaslighting and drug use. The setting and context allow her to heighten the tension in that relationship. That is, asking the question, what if your husband was not only abusive but also potentially a violent serial killer. The media obsession with the Ripper-murders, which Susannah (and many others at the time) picks up on, only heightens this feeling. That said, the Ripper murders do become relevant as the plot heats up.
This is a slow burn gothic thriller. In order the create tension, Whitfield doles out details slowly and Susannah, like a frog in a pot of slowly boiling water, takes time to notice the danger that she is in. But Whitfield keeps the reader’s interest by drip-feeding information about Susannah’s history and her time as a nurse, which itself contains skeletons that come back to haunt her.
People of Abandoned Character takes a well worn story and uses it to good effect. Claire Whitfield delivers an atmospheric and at times genuinely frightening gothic thriller, peopled by a cast of fairly despicable, amoral characters. But putting a believable toxic relationship at the heart grounds the action and leads readers naturally to the more violent and outlandish ending.