The Devil in a Domino, by Chas L’Epine

Thanks to having lots to do at work, a lot of chaos in my life, and a lot of worry about the world in general, I haven’t been able to concentrate well on reading fiction lately.  What I need at the moment are short, pithy reads, and fortunately my friends at Valancourt Books recently released something that fits the bill, The Devil in a Domino (1897), by Chas L’Epine.

The Devil in a Domino tells the story of a twisted serial killer, and is one of the very first books to be inspired by the infamous Jack the Ripper murders that happened in London in 1888.  Original printings of this novel are exceedingly rare, and the Valancourt edition is the first to be released in over a century!

The novel follows the life and exploits of Aleck Severn, a man born to a criminal and a drunk, who was born inside the walls of a prison after his mother murdered his father. Rescued as an infant by a wealthy and moral family, Aleck is raised with every advantage, and as an adult is exceedingly popular in high society.  He seems like the ideal bachelor and, indeed, he has one woman who already loves him without limit.

However, Aleck feels a curious passion about understanding the meaning of life.  He spends months locked away in an isolated house, apparently just pondering existence. When a young man, a fugitive, shows up at his door, Aleck takes it as a sign that his “scientific” researches are ready to enter their experimental stage.  Not long after, the horribly mutilated body of a woman is found nearby…

I would characterize The Devil in a Domino as a straightforward, fast-paced novel.  It is an easy book to read, and the author moves the story along at a rapid pace.  There are a few unexpected twists and turns to the story that keep it engaging.  There is one dramatic change of pace late in the book that leads to a delightfully horrifying finale.

By modern standards, the novel is not particularly shocking or grotesque, though it was apparently quite scandalous at the time of its release.  A nice introduction by Simon Stern puts the novel in its proper historical context and speculates on the possible true identity of the pseudonymous “Chas L’Epine.”  Somewhat ironically like Jack the Ripper himself, Chas L’Epine’s real name will likely forever remain a mystery.

The Devil in a Domino is probably one of the earliest fictional attempts to put the reader in the mind of a serial killer.  Much emphasis is placed on heredity, a notion that is very much out-of-date, but that makes the book also a fascinating glimpse at Victorian era views on mental illness.  It a short, sharp, shocker of a novel, and a fun read that can be finished in a night if one wants.

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