YA: The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius

Review published on November 8, 2018.

The first thing you need to know about Sally Jones, in her mind at least, is that she is not a human being, she’s an anthropoid ape (from the subspecies Gorilla gorilla graueri to be specific). The second thing you should realise is that she’s a skilled engineer and an experienced sailor. She’s serves aboard the SS Hudson Queen with the Chief (real name Henry Koskela), who is her best friend and most certainly not her owner. The pair of them make a living transporting cargo around the world. However, what you really need to know about Sally Jones is that she’s an amazing individual and that her adventures, as related in The Murderer’s Ape (which she has painstakingly typed up on her Underwood No. 5 typewriter), will transport you on a fabulous journey to exotic and dangerous places as she attempts to explain the intrigue that she unexpectedly became caught up in some four years previously.

Sally Jones and the Chief had been in the process of transporting a cargo of tin cans from London to the Azores when an unfortunate encounter with a whale necessitated them taking shelter in the Port of Lisbon so that they could repair the damage to the Hudson Queen. The repairs were expensive and the friends were desperate for cash when they were approached in a bar one night by a nervous-looking character named Alphonse Morro. He wanted them to transport some crates containing ceramic tiles from the small port of Agiere back to Lisbon within four days and he was willing to pay them a lot of money to do so. Sally Jones and the Chief both thought that the job sounded too good to be true, but they were in no position to turn down work, so they set off for Agiere to collect the cargo. Unfortunately for them, the job very quickly went horribly wrong and, following a catalogue of misadventures, the Chief ended up being falsely convicted of Morro’s murder.

Things were looking very bleak indeed for Sally Jones (mobs of folk were pursuing her through the streets of Lisbon calling her “the murderer’s gorilla”) when she chanced to encounter kind-hearted singer and shoemaker named Ana Molina, who offered her shelter. Sally Jones moved into Ana’s apartment and through her met accordion maker Signor Fidardo, who eventually gave her a job in his workshop. However, although her situation had improved somewhat, Sally Jones (and now also Ana and Signor Fidardo) still faced danger related to the death of Alphonse Morro and she still felt compelled to prove the Chief’s innocence and secure his release from prison. Her quest for justice became the start of a grand adventure as she travelled by boat, train and even bi-plane from Lisbon to Bombay and beyond in an attempt to find the truth, all the while pursued by dangerous enemies willing to do anything to protect their secrets…

Sally Jones (full name always, never just Sally) is a true hero, as well as being possibly the best friend who ever friended. She’s brave and bold and clever and remarkably loyal. The fact that she cannot speak (she is, after all, an ape) doesn’t hold her back from making friends, helping people and undertaking a lengthy quest to clear the Chief’s name. She’s more resilient than most people, and she’s also better than most at engineering, sailing, playing chess, reading people, flying and a whole lot more. If you ever find yourself imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit, Sally Jones is the individual that you would want to have on your side. The Chief is another fine example of a good friend and it’s easy to see why Sally Jones is so loyal to him. They might initially seem like unlikely companions, but they make a great pair and really look out for one another.

All the characters in The Murderer’s Ape (which has been translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves) are remarkably well rounded and engaging in fact, with Jakob Wegelius having put together a cast of folk (both human and animal) who immediately seem familiar and whose hopes, dreams and difficulties immediately seem important. It’s impossible not to root for Sally Jones, the Chief, Ana, Signor Fidardo et al., just as it’s impossible not to wish the worst for the conspirators and corrupt officials who caused the Chief to be imprisoned. Wegelius has certainly included some great baddies in The Murderer’s Ape as well as a number of characters whose intentions towards Sally Jones are more ambiguous – it’s just as well that she’s one smart ape who is more than capable of looking after herself. Her adventures really are extraordinary, transporting readers through peril, intrigue, kindness and hope, as Sally Jones travels the world, meeting all manner of zany, courageous, compassionate and self-serving people, in an attempt to determine what really happened to Alphonse Morro.

As for the physical book, it really is a beautifully put together paperback. The inside front cover features a full-colour map illustrating the journey of the SS Hudson Queen from London to Lisbon and the voyage of the SS Song of Limerick from Lisbon to Alexandria (and continuing upward the Rivers Tagus and Zezere), while the inside back cover features a similarly charming map depicting Sally Jones’ trips from Alexandria to Bombay, from Bombay to Cochin and from Bombay to Karachi. Both maps include a couple of illustrations of notable places/scenes from all the voyages. The book also features black and white portraits of all the key characters by Jakob Wegelius (who is certainly as fine an artist as he is a writer) and each chapter begins with an illustration depicting a key event to follow. Pushkin Children’s Books really should be commended for all the work that has gone in to making The Murderer’s Ape the wonderful-looking book that it is, as the artwork and extras really enhance the reading experience.

A graphic novel prequel to The Murderer’s Ape, The Legend of Sally Jones, has also recently been published. You can read Paul Burke’s review of it here.

Erin Britton 5/5

The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius
Pushkin Children’s Books 9781782691754 pbk Sep 2018

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