Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary–including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police–with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane–deny. The first thing I’ll say about Jackaby is by absolutely no means the most important, but its the reason you’re reading this review: the cover is wonderful. So wonderful I’ve been impatiently legging it through the other books I had lined up to read in order to get to Jackaby. I mean, just look at it.
Thankfully, that’s not it’s only merits. The blurb describes it as ‘Sherlock meets Doctor Who’ which is an audience-hooking analogy that’s not entirely accurate. I had more of a feeling of Dresden Files meets Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series. And yes, Sherlock. In fact, it’s incredibly hard not to picture Jackaby being played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Jackaby is cast thoroughly in the Holmesian mould, but far from feeling derivative it simply adds to the feeling of a fully fleshed character leaping onto the page, tail-coat flaring, clutching his lumpy hat. Jackaby is thoroughly entertaining, and his ability to detect by spying supernatural phenomena unseen by everyone else feels fresh and smart without becoming a ‘cop-out’ catch-all for the detective work. Likewise, a good word to be said for Abigail, our narrator, who’s cheerfully bull-headed in her pursuit of the job and equal treatment. The lines of her upbringing are sketched adeptly in, and we’re more than behind her on her determined hunt for adventure. Where the book soars is in the little details – Jackaby’s madcap lodgings, and their tenants – a ghost and a previous assistant, currently occupying the home of a duck; the banshee, the troll, the madwoman. The imagination of these are what breath unique life into the story, and what kept me happily reading.
It’s not perfect, of course. The mystery, which is set up bloodily and in great detail, is in the end solved by happenstance rather than any actual detection (instead, it’s all explained to us in the chapters after the denouement which, because of the amount of exposition and character work to fit in, feel a touch long), and the reveal of a certain character’s supernatural nature is, although hinted at, still curiously unsupported by everything that had gone before. This is partly down to the Jackaby’s all-knowing but un-revealing character – he gets to explain it all at the end, whereas for Abigail, our narrator, things just keep happening. These are all minor quibbles, though. What matters most in a story like this is wanting to be right back there with the characters for a second book, and I very much do. Some snooping on twitter reveals there is indeed a book two (I recommend the snooping. The author and Jackaby-character twitters are hilarious.) Thankfully, the book didn’t let down on the promise of the cover (shallow, I know), and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
The copy I read was provided by netgalley, so I’ll take a second to address the fact that this is being marketed as a YA novel. Jackaby has the advantage of genuinely feeling like neither one nor t’other, which is no bad thing. This will almost certainly appeal to a YA audience – the smarter kind, who don’t like being force-fed drivel with glittery vampires – but it’s neither patronizing nor lacking in depth enough that it couldn’t very easily be enjoyed by an adult audience. I call that a win.