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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Jackaby by William Ritter

Algonquin Young Readers, 304 pages, $9.95 (c2014)

This is labeled a young adult book. Phooey on such pigeon-holing! (As a matter of fact, there are a lot of interesting reads for older adults slotted under this label.) William Ritter has created an intriguing fantasy world with an eccentric hero and a redoubtable teenage heroine.

In 1892, in New Fiddleham, New England, R. F. Jackaby is widely known to be unusual, to say the least. He wears a bizarre, multi-colored hat and a long coat with many pockets stuffed with magical odds and ends, and sees things that others can’t. Abigail Rook, fresh off the boat, is a very young woman looking for work. She answers an advertisement for an assistant, and before she is even hired, she is off on her first adventure with the enigmatic Mr. Jackaby.

Abigail mistakenly interprets Jackaby’s accurate but farfetched observations about her recent travels to mean that he is a Sherlock-type genius. (“Let me guess, you smelled salt water on my coat, and I’ve got some peculiar shade of clay caked on my dress,” she says.) Later she finds out that his statements are related to supernatural critters he sees latched onto her outfit. If you watched the television show “Grimm,” it’s like that. Only a few chosen protectors can view the “other world,” and only they can effectively battle it.

Jackaby is a self-styled private investigator. He sometimes inserts himself into a police investigation, as he does in the case portrayed in “Jackaby,” the first book in Ritter’s series. A newspaper reporter has died, his body torn apart as if by a vicious animal and his blood drained. Jackaby senses some supernatural force at work. In fact, whatever the powerful force is, it has its footprints all over the place. One of Jackaby’s first pronouncements is that at least one more person will die that night. What no one knows at the time is that there is a potential for a catastrophe if Jackaby, Abigail, and police detective (junior variety) Charlie Cane can’t identify and stop the force.

“Jackaby” is not a subtle ghostly novel. Neither is it overly grisly or don’t-go-down-to-the-cellar stupid. It is well-balanced, slightly humorous, slightly dour, unexpectedly poignant, and very entertaining. There is a resident ghost in Jackaby’s home and a duck with decidedly un-ducklike propensities. And let’s not dwell on the frog in the aquarium in the front room. People have secrets. People have b-i-i-i-ig secrets. Bonus as far as I’m concerned: There is no prologue and no stories going back and forth in time. (That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed both those things when used well, but hey, now almost everybody uses those devices.)

This is a first book that makes you want to read the second book in the series.

P.S. Thanks to Chuck Caruso, the formidable former member of the MBTB staff, who came up with this recommendation.

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