The Fiend in Human

Reviewed: February 21, 2007
By: John MacLachlan Gray
Publisher: Seal Books
488 pages, $10.99

The Fiend in Human is a departure for John Gray. Best known as a playwright and satirist, most of his works to date (Billy Bishop Goes to War, 18 Wheels, etc.) have been grounded in current 20th and 21st century reality. His first novel, a mystery called A Gift for the Little Master, was set in contemporary Vancouver. This one is set in London, in 1852.

Where Grey is consistent is that he choses to work with a cast of characters that I really have trouble conjuring up much sympathy for. The central character of the novel is a self-centered freelance reporter named Edmund Whitty, a journalist of the type that used to be called yellow. Whitty doesn’t have much use for what we might think of as journalistic integrity. Writing for the tabloid Falcon, he is primarily concerned with entertaining his readers, stirring up controversy and keeping the circulation as high as possible.

Indeed, if Whitty could find some other way to keep himself stocked with alcohol and the various opiates that lubricate and fuel his otherwise vapid existence, one seriously doubts that he would write a single word. So dulled is his brain and the attendant faculties of logic and conscience that he is hardly a sterling example of the press.

He also makes mistakes. Whitty has been instrumental in hanging the handle of Chokee Bill on a man named William Ryan, who has been arrested for the murders of a number of street women, crimes that seem to prophecy the arrival of the Ripper some 36 years later. As we meander through the first third of the book, watching Whitty getting into trouble with corrupt coppers, his landlady, loan sharks and assorted colleagues, we see him begin to wonder if Ryan is, in fact, the murderer Whitty had thought him to be.

The book only begins to take off slightly after this seed of doubt is planted, when Whitty, mostly for the wrong reasons, sets himself up as the ironic champion of the Fiend in Human Form he had helped to create.

There are some interesting folks in the supporting cast. There is Owler, the ragged writer of penny dreadful verses on dismal themes, who makes a living for himself and two girls by creating melodramatic verses which he prints up and hawks on the streets. The girls, Phoebe and Dorcas, are also engaging creations, as is Mrs. Plant, the owner of an establishment which Whitty sometimes frequents. There is Bigney, the lower class engraver who seems to be the real investigative reporter in the book.

Ryan, the putative fiend of the title, is a villain of some depth and complexity, full of clever schemes and capable of extreme physical feats. Just what he actually has done is not clear until the end of the story, though it does become obvious long before that that he is not Chokee Bill. The honour goes to a young toff, one of several whose dissolute and tragicomic lives we follow at various points in the narrative.

We are also treated to a number of newspaper columns, both by Whitty and his rivals, written in the overblown style of the day, full of sound, fury, innuendo and very little in the way of verifiable facts. These “correspondents” give the very idea of journalism a bad name, but they sell their papers, and that seems to be the main concern of their editors and publishers, who are certainly no better than their scribes.

I seem to be panning this book, but I don’t actually mean to be. I’m writing about it here, so I must have finished it, and to do that I must have found something worthwhile in it.

There is some indication along the way that Whitty actually begins to realize what a class bound ass he is, and when he dries out during an extended period of convalescence after a beating at the hands of the Peelers (police) he actually becomes clever enough to engineer the fitting ends of both the real Chokee Bill and the devilish Mr. Ryan. He has some help in doing this, and it seems that he has improved enough by that time that he is actually aware of the potential in both himself and others. If he can keep his nose out of the gin there might be hope for him yet.

Gray, who had to add the middle name to his moniker because there are just too many “John Grays” out there, has produced a sequel to this book. Set six years later, it is called A White Stone Day, and I expect I’ll pick it when I find it in paperback.