Thursday, 17 January 2013

Starring - London Life

"The day Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux arrives in London marks a memorable occasion.  For Rory, it’s the start of a new life at a London boarding school.  But for many, this will be remembered as the day a series of brutal murders broke out across the city – gruesome crimes mimicking the horrific work of Jack the Ripper in the autumn of 1888.

Soon “Rippermania” takes hold of modern-day London, and the police are left few leads and no witnesses.  Except one.  Rory spotted the man police believe to the prime suspect.  But she is the only one who saw him.  Even her roommate, who was with her at the time, didn’t notice the mysterious man.  So why can only Rory see him?  And more urgently, what is he planning to do about her?

In this edge-of-your-seat thriller, full of suspense, humour, and romance, Rory will learn the truth about the secret ghost police of London and discover her own shocking abilities."

The Name of the Star is the first of Maureen Johnson's novels I’ve read and one which I saw mention of on Twitter.  On my reading it’s an interesting combination of both the familiar and less familiar which affords it a measure of originality in terms of premise and overall effect.

Johnson takes on previously explored territory with her main protagonist, Rory, a teenager who must adjust to newly acquired powers which mark her out as different from her fellow classmates.  In this, the layers of “difference” which ensure Rory stands out from the other students who reside at the Wexford boarding school become multiple, given she has also travelled from America to study there.  Thus, we see British school life very much from the “outside looking in” and Johnson provides a realistic sense of teenage insecurity in the face of the unfamiliar. 

Change during adolescence and exploration of or the sudden onset of supernatural powers as a metaphor for physical change is also a notable concept (Ginger Snaps comes to mind in this regard, for one), however, Johnson concentrates predominantly on emotional territory for the purposes of her narrative, save for the occasional attack of hormones in connection with an on-going romantic subplot.  This is apt in light of the overreaching story arc, which concentrates on a Jack the Ripper “copy cat” killer who must be unmasked by Rory and the members of the team of “ghost police” working within London and with whom Rory becomes familiar as a result of being the only key witness to the continuing investigation.

It is with the Ripper investigations that the narrative begins to build pace and a true sense of menace.  Rory is forced to assist, given it is her life which is ultimately on the line, for reasons which become clear at an early stage in the novel.  Furthermore, time is running out.  The “copy cat” nature of the crimes mean the reader has a clear sense of timescale as the team seek to “out” the killer. 

Johnson concentrates on the so-called “Canonical Five” Ripper victims for the purposes of her narrative, meaning the events which form the basis of the novel take place within a timeframe of just over two months.  During this, we are also treated to re-envisioned forms of the “Saucy Jack” postcard and “From Hell” letter, which formed well documented aspects of the historical police investigations and add to the sense of fully realised world building in this speculative modern day thriller which deliberately mirrors the events of the autumn of 1888.  

In connection with the investigation, the manner in which Johnson highlights the power of the media and manner in which this is responded to by the public is worth noting.  Similarly to 1888, “Rippermania” spreads throughout London and the murders committed by the “copy cat” killer are sensationalised. 

Historically speaking, Johnson has done her research.  The crimes are known to have caused somewhat of a frenzy at the time they were committed, particularly in light of recently instigated tax reforms which resulted in the production of cheap mass circulation newspapers.  For this, Johnson substitutes television press coverage.  Aspects of the crimes are also captured via CCTV footage.  (It is here that the speculative element of the plot becomes particularly important in establishing the extent to which this both helps and hinders police investigation.  This makes for an interesting twist on the concept of the crime thriller - here there is no forensic evidence on which the police can concentrate, notwithstanding technological advancement).      

Characterisation is strong throughout and we get to know the members of the “ghost police” team to a reasonable degree prior to the final confrontation with the unmasked killer, whose motives for the killings is clearly explained.  The “worlds collide” scenario and short timeframe for the race towards the showdown (and 372 pages of the hardback version of the novel) do not afford quite as much opportunity to get to know additional secondary characters, notably Jerome, Rory’s love interest.  Slightly more is documented concerning Jazza, Rory’s roommate.  However, arguably, this would have detracted from the sense of urgency we encounter as the developments within the investigation take on an ever increasing sense of urgency.  Equally, the distinction between Rory’s “school” life and “ghost team” experiences also serves to emphasise the sense of separation she experiences when first becoming aware of her new capabilities.

All told, The Name of the Star has much to recommend it and, noting a sequel is forthcoming shortly, I will be on the lookout for it. 


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