Inspector Edmund Reid begins 1890 with Jack the Ripper behind every corner in his mind. After failing to catch him, Reid paces the sidewalks Jack the Ripper worked before he disappeared.
When a murdered woman with familiar wounds is found, Reid (Matthew Macfayden) confiscates the body and enlists the help of the closest thing he has to a medical examiner, desperate to know whether the serial killer is really back.
"I must be sure," Reid says, "before that hell rises again."
If you know the names of Jack the Ripper's victims, you'll have your answer before he does, but that won't dampen the rain-soaked pleasures of Ripper Street.
The BBC's eight-part crime thriller is compelling because it is loosely based on people and events whose stories haven't permeated our culture already. And it's a pleasure to watch these cops at work, despite being handcuffed by their times.
They don't have the glowing forensic chemical tool luminol, but on the other hand, there are no search warrants to bother with. "Enhanced" interrogation techniques are the norm, especially from Sgt. Drake (Jerome Flynn of Game of Thrones). As the knuckles of the operation, Drake relates more to the thugs he's arresting than he should.
To persuade a condemned teen to speak up for himself, Reid and Drake drag him to the gallows to watch "Mr. Berry" during a busy shift. (James Berry was indeed the Crown's executioner at the time, and the police accurately recount his infamous blunders.)
The show paints its leading men as pioneers leading the Victorian march toward modern forensics. Fingerprinting was being perfected. Ballistics and hair analysis were mere years away. Sherlock Holmes had been on bookshelves for only three years. As out-of-uniform police investigators, Reid and his team are the new species in the jungle.
Reid shows off his innovative streak right away by throwing together some effective gunpowder from scratch in a tight spot. He also can whip up a milky hangover cure of magnesium, rum, sugar syrup and cocaine.
"I would have you be happy in your workplace," he tells his bleary-eyed American friend Homer Jackson, who has reluctantly agreed to help Reid with cases. The enigmatic ex-pat lives in a brothel and has some baggage he'd rather not unpack. He also seems to have the only revolver in London.
Thanks to Jackson (Adam Rothenberg of Alcatraz), America's history is added to the equation: He's mixed up with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, Chicago's band of thuggish private eyes and strike breakers.
Rothenberg handles most of the show's darkly funny dialogue, which evokes director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes, Snatch) almost as much as the series' underground boxing scenes and lightning-fast montages do.
Whitechapel is darkly rendered in David Fincher fashion, exploiting London's climate and monochromatic palette to create a fashionably styled, ominous version of the Old West.
Actually, Ripper Street isn't too far from HBO's defunct drama Deadwood: Both revolve around a lawman with a sad past. Both include sex workers as multifaceted female leads. And those Pinkertons are a constant threat in both worlds.
Ripper Street was clever enough not to hang its hat on the over-examined killings of the five Ripper victims, and clever fans of police procedurals will relish spending eight hours with cops who have to invent crime-solving tools as they go.
Begins its eight-episode run at 9 p.m. Jan. 19 on BBC America