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The Fiend in Human: A Novel (Edward Whitty, 1) Hardcover – September 24, 2003

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Product Details

  • Series: Edward Whitty, 1
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books; First Edition edition (September 24, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312282842
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312282844
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,413,187 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Journalist Edmund Whitty, the dissolute protagonist in John MacLachlan Gray's gloomily atmospheric mystery, The Fiend in Human, knows how to feed the public's appetite for lurid sensationalism. His latest success is Chokee Bill, "The Fiend in Human Form," a diabolical caricature of the serial strangler who's been attacking "women of low character" in 1852 London, ending their lives with white silk scarves. However, the arrest of coiner William Ryan for these crimes threatens to cool demand for Whitty's work--and thus deprive him of the income he needs for lodging, gin, and opium. So when he's approached by Henry Owler, an impoverished but proud balladeer, who hopes to ring a "last confession" from Ryan before his hanging, Whitty sees the chance again to best his competitors. What he doesn't expect, though, is for the stranglings to continue, raising doubts about Ryan's guilt and leading him--in the interests of his own pocketbook, of course--to turn detective in search of the factual fiend.

Gray, a Canadian columnist and playwright, captures Victorian London in the breadth of its grandeur and decay, shining an especially bright but sympathetic light on the city's outcast populace. A destitute woman here eyes a stray cat, "mumbling to herself that there walks two pounds of meat." An executioner's "facial pores appear to have been pricked repeatedly with pointed sticks." Pursuing his investigation, despite warnings from police and others, leads to Whitty being "thrown headlong from [a] swiftly moving carriage" and having an irate rat stuffed down the front of his trousers. However, this egocentric scribbler considers the pain worth the price, as he goes on to confront an unconvicted murderess, enlist a daring prostitute in searching for the suspicious owner of a silver flask, and face the scorn of his professional brethren--all to prove that Ryan isn't Chokee Bill, after all. Or is he? The Fiend in Human resolves this mystery amid elegant prose, frequent bursts of wit, and integral commentary on the failures of the press that reveals just how little has changed in a century and a half. --J. Kingston Pierce

From Publishers Weekly

Canadian writer Gray portrays the mean streets and byways of 1852 London with a skill worthy of Dickens, but handles the mystery elements of this uneven debut with less success. A cloud of fear over the city has been lifted by the arrest of William Ryan (aka Chokee Bill), a Jack-the-Ripper precursor who has strangled and mutilated five prostitutes. Edmund Whitty, a dissolute and struggling freelance journalist, attempts to improve his fortunes and stave off his debtors by using the upcoming execution of the monster as the basis for a series of articles. He decides to credit the accused's protestations of innocence to justify his own inquiry into the killings and his printed attacks on the hypocrisy that tolerates the desperate poverty and squalor of London's slums. Evidence that the murders have continued despite Ryan's incarceration bolsters Whitty's crusade. Gray masterfully conveys mid-Victorian society, from the haughty upper classes to the oppressed poor. Even minor characters, such as the bartender at one of the reporter's favorite haunts, come to vivid life. Unfortunately, the entrance of the real Chokee Bill into the action rather spoils the suspense, while a plot twist toward the end will surprise few readers. The author may not be the next Caleb Carr, but his considerable gifts bode well for future forays into crime fiction.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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This is a work of historical excellence.
Your librarian
The atmosphere is odoriferous and visual, the plot full of characters who belie their appearances, and the writing is witty, sardonic and Dickensian.
Lynn Harnett
By combining the arch floridness of Victorian prose with a present-tense, subtly ironic style, Gray has created a distinctive voice.
S. Chiger

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on October 3, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Victorian London comes alive in all its squalor, filth, stink and teeming humanity in this clever, elegantly written thriller about a down-on-his-luck journalist determined to make his name by saving an innocent man from the gallows.
Edmund Whitty covers public hangings and other juicy topics of the day for a popular scandal sheet, which just about keeps him in drink and opium. He's fallen a notch from his Oxford Days, but not so low he can't feel ashamed when his cruel, clever jeering ruins the career of a "patterer," Henry Owler, whose sale of true crime verses barely keeps his daughter and his ward in greasy soup and straw pallets.
Owler seeks the exclusive confession of a serial killer, William Ryan, dubbed Chokee Bill, "the fiend in human form," and extracts a promise from Whitty (by arranging an involuntary visit to a labyrinthine slum) to resurrect his reputation if his verses prove true. Owler has an in at the prison, but there's a problem. Chokee Bill insists on his innocence and the killings have continued - hushed by the police, the merchants, even the pickpockets and Owler himself - all the people who suffered while fear of the fiend kept business away. Only Whitty, ever in need of a sensational story for his readers - has reason to pursue the real killer.
Gray takes us into the lodgings of the privileged and the reeking shacks of the destitute, the variously appointed taverns of journalists, prostitutes, thieves and worse. He takes us to brothels and drawing rooms and the prison cells of condemned men. And he spins a classic yarn full of heroism and hypocrisy, viciousness and desperation, thrills and just desserts and low blows.
The atmosphere is odoriferous and visual, the plot full of characters who belie their appearances, and the writing is witty, sardonic and Dickensian. If you like Caleb Carr, you will love John MacLachlan Gray.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Your librarian on November 10, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Victorian London is abuzz with news of a serial killer in their midst. That buzz is fed by profit-driven newspaper columnists who each strive for the most sensational story.
Edmund Whitty is one such columnist for The Falcon. He is also a drunken lout with steep gambling debts that he can't seem to pay. One evening he is beaten severely as he leaves his favorite drinking place. He is subsequently spirited to the deepest underbelly of Victorian London society to be confronted by a man whom Whitty has recently defamed in a recent newspaper column.
Whitty's world turns upside down and author John MacLachlan Gray's excellent novel takes off. I don't know that I would, like the book's cover, classify this book as a thriller. This is a suspense novel of the first rate. But it is not a typical thriller where action overrides reason in forwarding it's plot.
Rather, Gray has written a fantastic story of crime, injustice and retribution centered around less-than-regal Victorian London society. His detailed depictions of life in London's underbelly are so effective that the reader can smell the aroma of the unkempt and yet feel the nobility of their humanity. His equally honest portrayal of human foibles and the wrongs of class consciousness are settled in the reader's mind. His plot is unpredictable and surprises abound. Yet there is still a rousing ending that will leave the reader cheering.
This book is a must read and should be on recommended Victorian reading lists everywhere, with only a couple of warnings.
This is a work of historical excellence. As an American, it took me a while to become accustomed to the Victorian slang and other linguistic derivations of the time. But keep going, dear readers.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Paul Weiss on May 14, 2006
Format: Paperback
With no small amount of national pride, I'm thrilled to report that mere superlatives somehow seem insufficient to convey Gray's debut success with The Fiend in Human.

Edmund Whitty is a profligate, dissolute freelance journalist who has succumbed to every known Victorian vice save womanizing - snuff, cigarettes, gin, opium, laudanum, and Acker's Chlorodine (a potent mixture of opium, marijuana and cocaine in alcohol!) Despite having achieved a measure of journalistic fame and public notoriety by assigning the moniker "Chokee Bill" to William Ryan, currently awaiting execution for the strangulation and grisly mutilation of five ladies of questionable virtue, Whitty struggles with an ongoing desperate need to produce the income required to stave off gambling debtors who won't hesitate to use a physical beating to persuade payment. In the course of searching out new "crisp copy", lurid sensational pieces he can submit to his tight-fisted editor, he meets the impoverished Henry Owler, a "patterer" who wishes to render Ryan's last confession before his hanging into "true crime" verse. But Ryan (not unlike other convicted criminals, of course) protests he is innocent and circumstances begin to persuade Owler and Whitty that Ryan is indeed telling the truth. The signature white scarf killings have continued, swept under the carpet and hushed up by one and all - the police, the merchants, the petty criminals and even the poverty stricken residents of the local neighbourhood! Whitty in a desperate bid to achieve real fame in a fading, limpid journalistic career and financial freedom from the debtors who are relentlessly hounding him, decides to stake all on proving Ryan's innocence.
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