Reading this book has given me a horror of all kinds of linguistic and rhetorical gymnastics, so instead of trying to baffle you with my cleverness in this review, I’m just going to lay my cards straight on the table. To begin with, I really, really enjoyed The Dracula Dossier, and then it all went horribly wrong. The point of no return came around page 158 – and considering that the book runs to 406 pages, that leaves a lot of disappointing pages.
The Dracula Dossier is framed as a newly discovered collection of Bram Stoker’s journal entries and personal letters, some of which were originally in code. Ordered chronologically, these papers purport to offer an insight into Stoker’s life, detailing events which may have inspired him to write his most famous novel. The structure of The Dracula Dossier is, obviously, a nod to the structure of Dracula, which is itself a story told through a collection of letters and journal entries, and the format initially works well. The fictional Stoker of the Dossier encounters people and has experiences which can be directly mapped onto events and characters in Dracula, and who are also real historical figures – Oscar Wilde and his mother feature heavily, for example, and it’s all very clever-clever: while a casual reader can read and enjoy the book in itself, there are also plenty of in-jokes and references for Dracula fans to pick up on. Unfortunately, after a while the number of Dracula references became overwhelming, to the point where if this book were factual, then Stoker really didn’t do much embellishing when he sat down to write. It’s also distracting to continually have the spectre of Dracula waving in the reader’s face, preventing them from getting on with the book.
The actual narrative of the Dossier concerns Stoker’s accidental involvement with The Order of the Golden Dawn, a cult which raises a demon who, er, apparently becomes Jack the Ripper. Feeling responsible, and also under suspicion from the police, Stoker turns detective, trying to track down the Ripper and exorcise him. The chase begins improbably and ends with a finale which is so contrived and nonsensical that it really strained my suspension of disbelief. Or, rather, it would have, had I not already more than half given up on the novel on page 158. That’s the point where everything becomes just a bit too weird, a bit too supernatural, to be accepted as a series of events that really happened in Victorian London.
As always with any first person account, the idea that the narrator might not be telling the truth – or at least is only telling the truth from his own perspective, as opposed to any kind of objective truth – can’t be discounted, but if, on page 158, you just decide that Stoker’s lost the plot, that makes the rest of the novel rather pointless. If it’s just the ravings of a madman, with nothing actually happening and nothing at stake, then what’s the point of reading? And if you take that point of view, then Dracula becomes devalued as well, because its author was apparently violently deranged. The fantastical elements of the book cause problems either way, whether you deem them real or figments of Stoker’s imagination, and that’s really what ruined this book for me.
The cover line, which declares that The Dracula Dossier is “a novel of suspense”, isn’t entirely warranted, because let’s face it, we already know most of how this particular story will end: Stoker will write Dracula, Jack the Ripper will never be caught – but his killing spree will end – and, er, well, Bram Stoker isn’t a suspect, and that knowledge cuts straight through any tension the book has managed to build.
I guess ultimately I’m just really disappointed. The premise of this book sounded incredibly promising – Bram Stoker vs Jack the Ripper! – and the initial conceit worked so effectively and cleverly that I really, really loved the first 150 pages and anticipated this book becoming one of my favourites. But then it dropped the ball and became nonsense, totally squandering all the goodwill it had built up, relegating itself to the “interesting failures” pile.