NINETEEN– ‘PORTRAIT OF A KILLER – JACK THE RIPPER CASE CLOSED’ – PATRICIA CORNWELL
Patricia Cornwell has sold over 100 million books. She may not compare to the petroleum companies but 100 million books require paper from somewhere. The reader appeal of Patricia Cornwell exists as an ecological threat. Her first thriller Post Mortem is perhaps overextended. The prose is functional if uninspired but it is the best of her books. Post Mortem had a great opening and won all kinds of awards. Whatever her literary limitations Cornwell knows a winning ticket which makes it surprising that she was drawn into the quicksand of the Ripper mystery. Cornwell claims she has spent $7m researching the crimes. Economists use the term opportunity cost, which refers to money foregone rather than spent. The $7m estimate may include money lost through not writing another international bestseller. But life would have been easier for Patricia Cornwell if she had created another forensic thriller. Instead, she spent a lot of money and declared feted English artist Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. Her claim has been ridiculed.
Before she became a best selling author, Patricia Cornwell worked in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Virginia. She was employed as a technical writer and computer analyst. The experience of Cornwell in forensics informed the adventures of her popular feminist hero Kay Scarpetta. The medical examiner was clever, feisty, ate good food, drove great cars, had a fabulous home, wore marvellous clothes and was small and blonde. Remind you of anyone? There is nothing wrong with wish fulfilment. It did Raymond Chandler and plenty of others no harm. Neither should we be sniffy about confidence or self-belief. In this instance, though, wish fulfilment and southern sass are not advantages. Cornwell is not modest, and her hectoring tone can forfeit sympathy. At times the superior attitude in her prose evokes the style of a smug country singer. There is no examination of the other suspects in Jack the Ripper Case Closed, and inside the book it is never made clear how and why she focussed on Walter Sickert as Jack the Ripper and disregarded the rest. But in a TV interview Cornwell stated she became convinced Walter Sickert was the murderer as soon as she saw his paintings. An author tempted to use her own work as a means of wish fulfilment may be too inclined to identify the same approach in other creative talents. The similarity that she thinks exists between the crimes, the victims and the paintings of Sickert appears exaggerated to me.
Walter Sickert was interested in what today would be called lowlife debauchery. He is not alone among writers and painters. Neither is his habit of ‘disappearing to wander’ unusual in creative people. Sickert painted and probably used prostitutes. He liked to visit music halls and had a weakness for alcohol. The similarity with Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is obvious, and the lack of reference to the Paris counterpart by Cornwell is a strange omission and a bit dumb. Both men were products of their extreme era. Jack the Ripper was a consequence of more unusual desires. Toulouse-Lautrec and Walter Sickert were non-conformist Victorian artists and outsiders who offended what was left of their bourgeois friends. Cornwell appears to have no knowledge of European bohemian values and refuses to make the connection between the frustrations of the obsessive artist, exaggerated self-entitlement, bizarre curiosity and unpleasant behaviour. Psychopathic power is attributed to Sickert by Cornwell but his undue influence over others can also be related to the confidence and audacity of the privileged.
Jack the Ripper Case Closed can be compared to They All Love Jack by Bruce Robinson. Both books have investigations which begin where they should end, that is with a conclusion, and both authors load the evidence on one suspect although they disagree on whom that suspect should be. Close to their subject the authors use their books to communicate revulsion at not just the crimes but also the personalities of their villains, as if mere selfishness needs to be condemned. At times the extra evidence that is revealed in Jack the Ripper Case Closed makes a reader pause. At others it feels overdone. Cornwell is good at identifying errors in medical reports and she does discover possible clues but her assumption that the thespian skills of Sickert enabled him to avoid pursuers is unconvincing.
Between 1888 and 1896 the Metropolitan Police received 250 letters signed by someone suggesting that the writer was Jack the Ripper. Cornwell and Robinson claim that their examinations of the letters established the guilt of their suspects. As their individual suspects travelled around Britain, the two authors reckon they have found a pattern in the letters and that the murders correspond to the itineraries of their alleged assassins. Patterns can be established when those letters that do not fit the pattern are dismissed and if we assume that their suspect was capable of changing his handwriting. Add the notion that serial killers are inconsistent and more than a few folk can be posthumously fitted up. Perhaps the assumptions above are not as wild as I make them sound but depend upon them and it means that the evidence from the letters proves nothing. Play around with 250 letters, search for patterns and you soon imitate a whimsical Tarot reader.
Cornwell leans on what she regards as two important clues. A couple of the letters supposedly signed by the Ripper have the same watermark that was used on correspondence by Walter Sickert. Cornwell states that only 24 sheets of paper featuring that watermark were ever produced. She is, though, coy about the size of a sheet and the number of pages it would contain. Because of that coyness, we have a right to be suspicious of the clue. Some of the letters from the Ripper have red blots that look like bloodstains. Cornwell had them analysed and found that they contained etching ground, which is used by artists. This is not unimportant evidence but it may only mean that someone who had access to etching ground wrote a couple of the letters.
Supposition is too often confused with deduction in Jack the Ripper Case Closed but to be fair to Cornwell she is approaching the problem in the same way she would have when she worked in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. She notes something dodgy, forms a hunch and then compiles enough telling facts to persuade a detective to knock on the door of her favourite suspect. Sometimes it leads to nothing. On a good day the detective collects more incriminating evidence at the home of the marked man or woman, sets up an interview and obtains a confession. Patricia Cornwell in Jack the Ripper Case Closed does enough to warrant a copper knocking on the door. And if the book had been published when Sickert was alive, that would have happened. Perhaps the more sceptical amongst us would have even been surprised by what followed.
Jack the Ripper Case Closed is not the equal of They All Love Jack. The latter is shaped by the hatred Bruce Robinson has for what he regards as a corrupt British establishment. Robinson digs amongst what he regards as relentless dirt and hypocrisy. Cornwell notes the inequality but moves on. Without the left wing indignation of Robinson she presents nothing more than an elaborate conspiracy theory. The working class suspects in the Ripper saga may be unconvincing but they are there because they were suspected by the police. The evidence against them is what the police collected. Conspiracy theories from novelists require either a middle-class or upper class figure, someone who back then had what constituted celebrity. If we knew as much about working class individuals as the celebrated, we would have many more conspiracy theories.
Jack the Ripper Case Closed presents Cornwell with the difficult job of balancing a biography of a full life with an historical look at a famous crime. She is not always helped by her editor. The account of the life of the father-in-law of Walter Sickert soon becomes a tedious diversion. The proof reading also misses some errors. Back in 1888 there was not a 3½ hours train ride between England and France. At some point you had to catch something that floated on water. Neither does the Cornish coast face the English Channel. When doing research for her book, Cornwell flew from Virginia to London. The Atlantic Ocean is rather wide and noticeable. These are not the errors one would expect from someone with a forensic eye.
Jack the Ripper Case Closed has its rewarding moments. The clarification about whether the Ripper was right-handed and the explanation of how only one knife was used in the murders are welcome. Cornwell also provides interesting detail about the salaries of beat policemen and their shift patterns. She also makes clear what were the responsibilities of the divisional surgeons. Her key discovery is the guest book of the Lizard Guest House in Cornwall. Two years before the murders someone wrote enough in the guest book for it to merit being important to any investigation into the Ripper crimes. Cornwell offers only one interpretation of what she discovered. This may happen in police work, detectives need to knock on that front door as soon as possible, but in a book such conviction weakens rather than strengthens the argument. She has, though, made us curious. What happened in Cornwall two years before the Whitechapel murders deserves a book in itself, and Cornwell has done enough to claim the first option.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.