(Editor’s note: This review was published originally in January Magazine in December 2003. It is presented here solely for archiving purposes.)
By J. Kingston Pierce
There's a splendid exchange not far into John MacLachlan Gray’s The Fiend in Human (Random House Canada), during which Edmund Whitty, an impecunious drug addict and underworld correspondent for The Falcon, London’s “second-best sensational tabloid,” discusses the decline of journalism with a “patterer,” Henry Owler, who peddles doggerel about condemned prisoners to crowds awaiting the spectacle of their public hangings. Owler begins: “I don’t mind saying it, Mr. Witty, business could be better. People are more choosy like—they demands more and more of the nasty particulars.” To which the reporter replies, “I agree with you, Mr. Owler. It is getting so that the news is not driven by facts, but by the fickle taste of the reader.”
Gray, a Canadian columnist and playwright, might well have sprinkled these words upon the tongues of present-day newsies, many of whom mourn the way that journalistic standards are often sacrificed to a perceived market demand for overhyped and/or oversimplified stories. That Fiend is set way back in 1852 makes this colloquy both ironic and depressing, pointing up just how little has changed over the last century and a half. Indeed, other elements of Gray’s novel—from its focus on a serial killer (36 years before Jack the Ripper) to its recognition that a self-satisfied people crave ever more bizarre entertainments (Fear Factor, anyone?)—seem positively modern. And in that unexpected currency this book finds part of its attraction; the balance derives from its alternately dark and whimsical story, as well as its Dickensian cast.
Foremost among the players is Whitty, whose wont to feed the public’s appetite for lurid sensationalism has spawned Chokee Bill, “The Fiend in Human Form,” his diabolic caricature of a strangler at large in Victorian London. The arrest, though, of coiner William Ryan for these heinous crimes forces Whitty to look for new ways to scoop his professional brethren. So when he’s approached by Owler for help in extracting a “last confession” from Ryan, Whitty sees opportunity for himself. What he doesn’t expect, however, is for the murders to continue—raising doubts about the incarcerated Ryan’s guilt, and convincing Whitty to enlist Owler in a search after the fiend’s true identity.
As this pair pursue their quarry, and copycat killers prowl streets supposedly left safe after Ryan’s capture, readers will revel in Gray’s elegant prose and humorous situations, as well as his gloomy and squalid evocations of Victorian London. Of the several novels this year that have resurrected England’s capital in the mid-19th century (David Pirie’s The Night Calls and Louis Bayard’s Mr. Timothy being two other examples), The Fiend in Human does it most memorably.