I placed my thumb and forefinger on the icy flesh, spreading it taut above the breastbone as Uncle had showed me. (From the first line of Stalking Jack the Ripper)
These are the first words that grab the reader’s attention in Kerri Maniscalco’s novel Stalking Jack the Ripper. What lies within the pages of Maniscalco’s work is a tale of mystery, murder, and romance. In a Dark time surrounded by the grisly crimes when jack the ripper was committing his crimes, the story is centered around a young woman. Audrey Rose Wadsworth, the heroine, is by no means the average young Victorian lady. She is caught up in two different worlds, a world of tea parties and gossip, and a world of cadavers and knives. Audrey Rose works as a protégé to her mortician uncle, along side his assistant Thomas Cresswell.
Maniscalco allows the reader to see through Audrey Rose’s point of view, which in turn, gives further insight to her thoughts and emotions. From nearly the very beginning of the novel, it is clear not everyone in the main character’s life is pleased by her interest in the dead. The idea of a young, unmarried woman slicing open a cold corpse would have appalled the members of Victorian society. “Girls should be concerned with lace, not moral disgrace” her proper aunt would often tell her. But in truth, Audrey Rose has no desire to sit around and look like a lovely porcelain doll: science is her true passion. Though it seems as if the world is against her, she finds a sense of support in Uncle Jonathan, Thomas, and her older brother, Nathaniel. With the aid of her kind and sensitive brother, Audrey Rose is able to sneak out and continue to pursue her interest in forensic medicine.
Things take a treacherous turn when prostitute Mary Ann Nichols is found, slain and mutilated in Whitechapel. Audrey Rose’s uncle gets involved with the case, and examines the body with his niece and Thomas. Together, they soon find themselves entangled in the chaos of a mad man as another victim is discovered. As she assists her uncle in inspecting the butchered corpses of the victims, Audrey Rose begins to look at the slain women in another light:
Death was not prejudiced by mortal things such as station or gender. It came for kings and queens and prostitutes alike, often leaving the living with regrets (Maniscalco 22)
Being the daughter of a wealthy lord, she is constantly surrounded by arrogant people who scorn such women. However, when she sees them, mangled and lifeless, she realizes their lifestyle made them no different from her or anyone else. The victims were humans, struggling to stay afloat in a harsh world. This is what places her on the path of seeking justice for the victims. Audrey Rose is determined to identify the killer and stop his reign of terror.
Of course, she is not alone in her mission. Thomas Cresswell becomes a frequent companion to Audrey Rose. From early on in the novel, Maniscalco paints their relationship to be of an almost love-hate nature. Thomas’s character is a bit rough around the edges. He is often described as a “deplorable beast” by Audrey Rose. His actions as well as his ever-shifting emotions confuse and aggravate her. “He acts devilishly warm one moment, then frigid the next” (Maniscalco 143). Their companionship is an emotional and mental rollercoaster from start to finish, flirting and fighting throughout the entirety of the novel. Despite their constant struggles against each other, Audrey Rose begins to trust and depend on Thomas.
The fact that Audrey Rose can rely on Thomas works in her favor, seeming as though circumstances have limited the number of people she can trust. Her uncle is arrested for the murders in Whitechapel, and as the Scotland Yard police tear apart her uncle’s laboratory, they find some missing evidence from the crime scenes: a few blood covered bolts. Although the odds appear to be stacked against him, Audrey Rose and Thomas refuse to believe their mentor could be capable of such violence. Not long after the arrest, Scotland Yard receives some disturbing letters from a person claiming to be the killer. “Dear Boss, I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they won’t fix me just yet…” (Maniscalco 192). Audrey Rose’s uncle is only released from custody when a double murder occurs, both sharing strikingly similar qualities with the previous murders.
Audrey Rose does not get a chance to breathe a sigh of relief at her uncle’s innocence. As she is examining the most recent victims, her father and her brother drag her away from the scene. Her father forbids her from practicing forensic medicine and demands that she lives a life acceptable in the eyes of society. This however, does not stop her from seeking out the killer. Maniscalco creates a lovely embodiment of courage and determination in the character of Audrey Rose. She is willing to defy society and her overprotective father in order to not only pursue her passion but seek justice as well. With the help of her faithful companion, Thomas, Audrey Rose uncovers some alarming connections between her father and one of the murder victims. She begins to suspect his possible involvement in the horrible killings. Her suspicions only grow stronger when she and Thomas follow him one night to a brothel and see him with a prostitute who is murdered the very next day.
Audrey Rose makes the bold decision to confront her father alone. As she searches for him, she discovers a secret laboratory hidden within her own home. In the laboratory she finds many dreadful things: a mechanical arm enclosed in human flesh, a beating human heart wired to a machine, and her deceased mother. Before she can make a run for it, she stumbles into her brother, Nathaniel. This is the ultimate shock the reader encounters in the story, the moment when the true identity of the murderer is revealed. It is not Audrey Rose’s father who mutilated the women. Nathaniel exposes himself as the killer to his unsuspecting sister.
“This is all my doing” he proudly informs her (Maniscalco 293). In his confession, he explains his intentions of raising their mother from the dead, an idea he ripped from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Instead of salvaging the cold and decaying parts of the long deceased, he thought it best to use fresh parts from the women he murdered. Audrey Rose is in a living nightmare as she is tied to a chair and is forced to watch her once sweet brother operate on their mother’s corpse. Something during the process goes horrifically out of order, he flips an electrical switch, connected to the corpse and attempts to stick a metal syringe into the dead figure. Nathaniel is electrocuted and dies by his own hand.
Stalking Jack the Ripper is an intriguing mystery with romance, adventure, and loss. It also explores the importance of pursuing one’s dreams even in the face of doubt and ridicule. Another message that one can take away from reading the final chapters of the novel is knowledge can corrupt even the noblest of people. That same knowledge can also be used for immoral purposes. Reader be warned: this book will captivate and enthrall till the very last page.