Friday, May 29, 2020

Short Book Reviews: Liszt and the Whitechapel Murders

Music Macabre, by Sarah Rayne (Severn House)

This thriller, set in parallel time lines in modern and Victorian-era London, weaves together the legend of the serial killer, Jack the Ripper, and the music of Franz Liszt. In today’s time, writer Phineas Fox is researching his next project, a scholarly work on the life of Liszt, when he comes across a reference to “Liszten for the Killer,” a song that the women of Whitechapel used as an alarm signal.

The Victorian story line includes the notorious music hall dancer, Scaramel, and the poor girl, Dairy, whom she befriends. As the Ripper’s attacks grow nearer, Daisy and her younger brother barely escape his knives. Scaramel devises a scheme to use a melody composed by Liszt’s, as distinctive as it is haunting, as a way to rapidly spread word of his approach. Meanwhile, Phineas’s researches bring him to the physical location of the older story’s events. Many of the same buildings are still in existence, including the pub where Scaramel and her group met; in gaining access to the documents stored in the basement, he encounters the new owner, who has a secret family history and obsession of her own.

Music Macabre added something quite new and fresh for me to the usual tales of Jack the Ripper. Initially my curiosity was piqued by the use of Liszt’s music as a plot element. That in itself set the book apart (and as an adult piano student, I have Opinions about Liszt’s compositions for a pianist with relatively small hands). Both story lines drew me in, and as the parallel tales progressed, echoing and crossing one another, the tension rocketed up. The thriller elements were handled with seeming effortlessness, allowing deeper nuances to emerge. Sympathetic characters, a burgeoning sense of doom, and unexpected twists added to the reading enjoyment.

Now, where’s that playlist?

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