I've been noticing Maureen Johnson's name on anthologies and twitter feeds, always listed near authors I love. This was my first impression of her writing. I found it promising, yet somehow unremarkable. Let me try to break down why. Perhaps thriller/fantasy isn't Maureen's thing.
The main character is most interesting when she acts particularly southern - to wonderful comic effect. Whenever someone walks up to her without a greeting and launches into a rant, she replies, very simply, "Hi." How much more charmingly Southern can you get?
And her sidekicks are often more interesting than she is! I want to be Jazza, despite her flaws. "Aside from being the kind of person who used 'whom' correctly while gossiping, Jazza was also the kind of person who seemed pained about speaking badly about another person. She squeezed up her fists a few times, as if the gossip required physical pressure to leave her body." Boo is equally three-dimensional, with flaws, careless moments, and courage beyond the ordinary capacity of the adolescent.
The atmosphere is excellent. You don't forget you're in London for a second. Often, you forget that it's the present day and start thinking it's either ghostbuster 80's or 1888. Other times you think Maureen Johnson must have spent a semester abroad in London in college and badly needed the excuse to get all the details she garnered out of her notebook somehow.
Slight spoiler, but one you probably want to know: She isn't the hero of the story. If she had succeeded in dying to protect her friends, perhaps she could have been. But in the end, she is robbed of this honor by a minor, one-dimensionally didactic character, and is more of a pathetic punching bag than anything else.
Outdated references/technology: Okay, I'M in college now, and I missed the Spice Girls fad. A present-day high schooler clearly would have missed it too. The phones with pressable number keys are acknowledged as outdated, but it sure seems like there could have been a stronger technology pick. No references to texting/computer use whatsoever. Oh, and a girl who's been displaced in London for eight temporary months makes no effort to contact any friends back home.
Romance: One-dimensional, uninteresting classmate love interest, who can be proud of "floppy curls and his goofy Ripper obsession" (along with everyone else in London) at best. There's a cute library haunter who's way more appealing, but she doesn't even think about it.
Thematic flaws were the most uncomfortable.
At its thematic best, this novel is a bit of a meditation on the fandom surrounding Jack the Ripper: Why is he such a big deal? The character Jerome says it's because Jack killed without rhyme or reason, for what seems to be a purely psychological purpose, and in this way, he's known as "the first modern killer." Well, if that's why we like Jack, this book is a ripoff! (No pun intended.) Maureen's ripper is not a psychological modern killer, but someone with an agenda.
Its conclusion to this meditation is further jarring. The characters all agree that the truth behind Jack the Ripper is bound to be disappointing, and the hype surrounding it is fallacious. The people who want to hear about him? What stupid losers.
Why are we reading this book? Why is the author exploring this premise?
I almost feel that this book REQUIRES a sequel to fill in the thematic gaps and to turn the main character into an actual hero. And maybe to make Jazza a more relevant part of the story.
But how can that happen? The Ripper is gone.