By Adam Selby-Martin
As I've discussed before in these reviews, there seem to be two distinct patterns in regards to the use of a counterfactual narrative in a piece of alternate history fiction. Either the story is used to explore the alternate timeline that the author has developed, with the natural consequence that characters and plotlines are often less developed to allow a greater focus on the changed world that has been created; or alternatively, the alternate history is bent to the will of the story that the author wants to write, meaning that factors such as realism and plausibility are often stretched, or ignored entirely for the sake of the plotline and the characters. It's not a perfect theory, by any means, but it is something I intend to explore in greater detail in a future essay for the Sea Lion Press blog.
For this next review, I've chosen a title that is very much on the latter side of the equation. Is it particularly plausible that the Metropolitan Police would have reached out to consult with Theodore Roosevelt in an attempt to solve the mystery of the murders committed by the serial killer famously known as Jack the Ripper? Probably not, for a few key reasons - the insularity of that organisation for one thing, not to mention that while Roosevelt had already had an eventful and renowned career by the 1880s, including a stint as a New York City Police Commissioner, it's unlikely he would have had any particular skills or insight that would have led to the Ripper being apprehended. And yet while all that reasoning rings true, reading Mike Resnick’s Redchapel I found that I couldn’t have cared less about that potential lack of plausibility, because Resnick has crafted such an elegant, subtle and highly engaging piece of counterfactual fiction that I readily suspended my disbelief and went along with the story that he so effortlessly weaves.
The scenario that Resnick depicts is wonderfully simple and concise, perfectly fitting both with the short word-count of a novella and the impulsive, fire-brand personality of Theodore Roosevelt himself. Travelling in London, Roosevelt is approached by a detective from Scotland Yard to provide some private consultation on a very recent murder; of course, given the title of this novella, it isn’t just any murder, but in fact the latest victim of the infamous serial killer that is haunting Victorian London. Stumped by the murders, a Scotland Yard detective reluctantly decides to call upon Roosevelt to see if his experiences in “America’s untamed West” can provide any insights into the murders, and allow ‘Saucy Jack’ to be brought to justice.
While, as I mentioned above, the chain of events leading up to Roosevelt being enticed by Scotland Yard into investigating, the resulting story is hugely enjoyable and stays just on the right side of plausible. His method of investigating is both ingenious and very much in keeping with the real-life Roosevelt; utilising his natural brashness and charm and acting and dressing like a stereotypical American to fool those he is speaking to, while using that all as a front for an incisive brain hunting for clues. This is, of course, portrayed favourably to the dour and conservative-minded detectives of Scotland Yard, who cannot possibly compete with the intellectual and physical prowess of Theodore Roosevelt, bringing to mind the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Inspectors Greggson and Lestrade in Arthur Conan Doyle’s seminal works.
Yet for all that the story willingly utilises the Theodore Roosevelt historical mythology to drive the story, it does not do so uncritically. Excerpts from letters Roosevelt writes to his wife back in the United States allow the reader into Roosevelt's mind and witness his thought processes, and Resnick deftly uses these to reveal Roosevelt’s historical biases and prejudices; how, for example, he can castigate the British class system and highlight its many problems while also revealing his own class biases with his faintly patronising love for the 'common man' as well as his naked ambition for power and higher office (the reader of course knowing that he will eventually aim for the highest public office in the United States). There’s also some enjoyable background to the story, as Resnick provides a reason for Roosevelt being able to remain in London, weaving in American party politics as the sitting President attempts to prevent his interference in an upcoming election.
Roosevelt really is the star of the story, and the only character that becomes more than two-dimensional, but historical fidelity is hardly the point of the story. Instead, Roosevelt’s natural arrogance and drive is used to move forward the plot at a whip-crack pace, as he stalks his way through the wretched slums of Whitechapel and pieces together clues as to the Ripper’s true identity. The residents of the slums, abandoned and forgotten by the rest of the city, react favourably to Roosevelt’s brash yet open personality, allowing him access to evidence that has eluded Scotland Yard. Those clues are laid out subtly by Resnick as the plot progresses, avoiding the common shortfall in detective fiction of the resolution being entirely in the author’s head, and the revelation of the Ripper’s true identity is distinctly plausible given the nature of the crimes. The novella is book-ended with a short, grim but entirely realistic postscript that shows why the Ripper truly meant nothing despite the resultant publicity over the killings – and regardless of whether their true identity would have been revealed or not. Even if Theodore Roosevelt, future President of the United States of America, had personally hunted down and unmasked Jack the Ripper, the socio-economic and political currents of the time would not have allowed this to change anything in Victorian culture.
Fast-paced, extremely well-written and laced with dark humour, Redchapel is a superb piece of counterfactual fiction that readily demonstrates how alternate history can be made both fun and enjoyable without needing to be constrained by notions of historical realism or fidelity. As long as a certain amount of justification can be provided to the reader, no matter how flimsy when focused upon, then engaging and thoughtful alternate history can be the result.
Adam Selby-Martin also reviews other genres at his blog: The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer Book Review Blog - Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror and Alternate History Reviews