In a time when courtship rituals and etiquette books where a thing, Kerri Maniscalco expertly writes a masterclass series ripe with romantic tension amidst the bedlam of the Whitechapel murders.
A murder mystery thriller with a strong leaning toward horror, Stalking Jack the Ripper is a retelling of the pandemonium of 1888 London. There is a delicate balance that is no mean feat to achieve when writing historical fiction when it comes to modern thinking versus the societal rules of the era, and Kerri Maniscalco seamlessly and realistically mixes an undercurrent of modern day feminism with the strictness of social etiquette in the Victorian Era without being overbearing or breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Audrey Rose Wadsworth, the heroine, studies forensic medicine secretly with help from her uncle, defying her father’s wishes to be all things proper. The daughter of a reclusive lord, she lives a rather sheltered life of wealth and privilege. Despite having no mother to guide her, she juggles all her daughterly duties of the period, such as going to teas and other such societal engagements that were demanded of every high born lady, while keeping her true passion of forensics to herself because it was unbecoming of a woman to have such gruesome interests.
Audrey Rose is progressive, believing that one could be both fierce and pretty all at once, that being interested in forensics doesn’t mean she has to forego being girly, and that women can be just as strong as men.
Enter Thomas Cresswell, a charmer and know-it-all whose powers of deduction are Sherlock Holmsian in nature, and another forensic apprentice of Audrey Rose’s uncle. Both Thomas and Audrey Rose have an interest in the ongoing murders after being present for an autopsy of one of the mutilated victims. They go off separately at first, until they keep running into each other while looking for clues. Once they team up to investigate, they end up discovering who the notorious murderer is, all the while subtly being drawn closer and closer to one another.
While Audrey Rose’s progressive feminism of the time shines through the pages, her views on her and Thomas’ clandestine relationship (or lack thereof) remains rooted in Victorian values. Her hesitance and constant thoughts regarding impropriety add a layer of realism to the series that adds tension reminiscent of Pride & Prejudice.
Whenever Thomas smiles at Audrey Rose, or flirts with her as they banter back and forth, my mind flashes to the scene in P&P when Darcy touches Elizabeth’s hand as he helps her into a carriage, his hand flexing as he walks away because that one touch affected him so strongly.
Imagine that feeling throughout two whole books where you wait with baited breath for Thomas and Audrey Rose to finally tell each other how they feel, or to make their intentions towards each other known. If I carried around a fan like the women did in the Victorian era, I’d be fanning myself as I read the tension between the two of them build up beautifully and realistically.
As far as what makes Audrey Rose and Thomas’ relationship so compelling and enduring, I’ve pinpointed a few things that are noteworthy. The banter between the two of them is a major part of their dynamic. Their constant quips back and forth is an art of flirtation that I didn’t realize was a thing during that era but is written superbly and with ease that is simply captivating.
By referring to each other by their last names, unless under duress, this is an added layer of etiquette from the era that makes each usage of their given name stand out as full of sincerity that I find heart-warming. Thomas is as progressive as Audrey Rose is, listening to her suggestions, believing that she isn’t lesser of a person because of her sex, and giving her space when she believes they are being too improper.
In fact, he doesn’t act any differently around her than he did prior to their brief indiscretion, a kiss after an adrenaline rush that obviously wouldn’t be seen as improper in the present. Thomas’ sense of decorum throughout the series stands out to me as endearing considering even in modern times it would be hard to find someone as authentic and frank as Thomas Cresswell.
I tend to lean more toward books like SJtR, where the romance is more subtle and isn’t in the forefront of the plotline. I’m writing about Thomas and Audrey Rose because of their discreteness amidst the murder and mayhem. Their relationship is so well done, simmering on a back burner while they investigate, that I don’t roll my eyes when they lock eyes or wax poetic.
The slow-burn that leads up to Thomas admitting his intent to court Audrey Rose in Hunting Prince Dracula will stick with me longer than any romance that hits me over the head repeatedly with overdone romantic overtures. There is a fine line between subtlety and over-saturation, of which Kerri Maniscalco is a master.
Stalking Jack the Ripper’s point of view is solely that of Audrey Rose, which solidifies not only her progressive thinking, but gives insight into her more conservative views of courtship and not wanting to cause gossip in regards to her and Thomas. She thinks of Thomas often, as well as a wavering back and forth about his intentions, but does so without it being jarring or pulling the reader out of the moment.
Though the series itself is in Audrey Rose’s point of view, recently the Mass Market Paperback came out for Stalking Jack the Ripper and with it came a novella written in Thomas’ point of view so the reader has a chance to see through Thomas’ eyes and learn more about him besides what Audrey Rose observes. The third book in the SJtR series, Escaping from Houdini, comes out September 18. I can’t wait to see how their courtship continues to flourish amidst intrigue and danger aboard the RMS Etruria.