Imagine a supernatural Sherlock Holmes with a competent female Watson at his side, and you’ve got the plot of the delightful Jackaby, the first installment in Ritter’s new young adult series. (Its sequel, The Beastly Bones, is due in September.)
Abigail Rook, runaway from a life of British privilege, finds herself in New Fiddleham, New England, via a roundabout route that included a lengthy stopover at a dinosaur dig. Abigail, who’s very much a Watson in the Martin Freeman vein — smart, stout-hearted, and adventurous — needs a job, and R.F. Jackaby, supernatural consulting detective, needs an assistant. Abigail is not put off by the fact that Jackaby’s former assistant is now a duck living on the mysterious third floor of his haunted mansion, and she determinedly follows her new boss on his investigation of a mysterious serial killer, matching her keen observation and logic skills to Jackaby’s otherworldly knowledge.
The serial killer plot is fine, but the real charm in this book — and trust me, there’s lots of charm — is the world Ritter has created. Abigail is a delight — so often, headstrong, determined young women like Abigail disappoint in books. They are too brittle or too competent or too inclined to go weak in the knees around young men who could be their soulmates. Abigail is none of those things — she knows her strengths, recognizes her weakness, is equal parts wise and foolish, and feels like a real, complicated human being. Her cohort is a bit more mysterious, but Jackaby's paranormal powers isolate him from other people in a distinctive way: He literally sees things other people can’t. All the time. And while he radiates the kind of prickly attraction that Benedict Cumberbatch brings to the role of Sherlock Holmes, he’s not the cheese to Abigail’s macaroni. They are partners in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and the development of their friendly, respectful relationship is much more interesting than any love story. (Abigail does develop a little crush on a friendly police officer who has a secret of his own.)
“Marlowe is a good man, but he only knows how to slay dragons,” Jackaby tells Abigail during their investigation. “The world is full of dragon-slayers. What we need are a few more people who aren't too proud to listen to a fish.” This odd little book makes me want to listen to fish a little more often.
AMY SHARONY is the founder and editor-in-chief of home | school | life magazine. She's a pretty nice person until someone starts pluralizing things with apostrophes, but then all bets are off.