To write anything new or meaningful about the facts surrounding what is probably the world’s most celebrated – and baffling – unsolved murder mystery is virtually impossible. Despite this, it doesn’t stop writers of every stripe trying. Sometimes the results can be worthy. On other occasions, they can be simply embarrassing. One of the poorer efforts cost Patricia Cornwell a good part of her considerable fortune to try to convince the world that Jack The Ripper was none other than Walter Richard Sickert, the celebrated painter. Very few people outside the close circle of the creator of Kay Scarpetta resisted the temptation of a facepalm moment. So, no-one knows the identity of Jack The Ripper, and I imagine Ladbrokes (other bookmakers are available) would give you very long odds against anyone ever discovering his (other genders are available) identity.
Instead of going over old ground, in both a literal and figurative sense, I have taken a look at a trio of novels which, in different ways, have been influenced by the events of that terrible autumn in 1888. For all any of us know, these books may contain every bit as much truth as their factual counterparts.
The Curse Upon Mitre Square, A.D. 1530 – 1888 by John Francis Brewer (1888)
This was little more than a blood and thunder pamphlet. Its main – and perhaps sole – distinction is that it was actually published before the final canonical victim, Mary Jane Kelly, met a bloody end in her Millers Court hovel. Of Brewer, we know very little, but his style can best be illustrated with a brief extract.
“With a demon’s fury the monk then threw down the corpse and trod it out of any recognition.
He spat upon the mutilated face and, with his remaining strength, he ripped the body open and cast the entrails round about.”
As the title suggests, Brewer focuses on the murder of Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square, and his plot, such as it is, contends that the killer is none other that a spectral avenger, a mad monk no less, who haunts Mitre Square, allegedly the site of an ancient monastery. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, given the almost unassuaged thirst for Ripper material both in Britain and across The Atlantic, Brewer’s feverish account is still available in print. Whoever Brewer was, it is unlikely that his estate benefits from sales of the modern reprints. As you will see from the graphic, one later edition of the book was teamed up with another account, slightly more thoughtful, called The Lodger by Marie Belloc-Lowndes (1913)
Belloc-Lowndes (right) was the older sister of the prolific writer and poet Hilaire Belloc, but she avoided her brother’s antimodern polemicism, and wrote biographies, plays – and novels which were very highly thought of for their subtlety and psychological insight into crime, although she preferred not to be thought of as a crime fiction writer. In The Lodger, Mr and Mrs Bunting have staked their life savings on buying a house big enough to take in paying guests, but just as their dream is on the verge of crumbling, salvation comes in the form of the mysterious Mr Sleuth, who knocks on the door and takes a room, paying up front with many a gold sovereign. As Mr and Mrs Bunting count their money – and their blessings – London is gripped with terror as a killer nicknamed ‘The Avenger’ stalks the streets searching for blood. The Buntings’ peace of mind evaporates as they suspect that their lodger is none other than The Avenger. Such is the quality of The Lodger that it has been filmed many times, most notably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927. It would be remiss of me not to quote the famous bloodcurdling imprecation at the end of the book, directed at the hapless landlady.
“Your end will be bitter as wormwood and sharp as a two-edged sword.
Your feet shall go down to death, and your steps take hold on hell.”
Colin Wilson, who died in 2013, (left) was the kind of man with whom the British establishment, certainly in the 1950s and 60s, was most deeply ill at ease. He was, as much by his own proclamation as that of others, intellectually formidable. He burst on the literary scene in 1957 with The Outsider, a journey through an existential world in the company of, among others, Camus, Nietzsche, Kafka, Sartre, Hermann Hesse and Van Gogh. His novel that concerns us is Ritual In The Dark. Published, after a long gestation, in 1960, it examines how The Ripper legend transposes itself onto the London streets of the late 1950s. It must be remembered that many of the murder sites were still more or less recognisable, at that time, to Ripper afficionados. The tale involves three young men, Gerard Sorme, Oliver Glasp and Austin Nunne. Sorme goes about his life well aware of the significance of past deeds, but also knowing that a present day killer is out and about, emulating the horrors of 1888. Wilson could be said to be one of the pioneers of psychogeography, a linking of past and present much used by modern writers such as Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Sorme says,
“I am lying here in the middle of London, with a population of three million people asleep around me,
and a past that extends back to the time when the Romans built the city on a fever swamp.I can’t explain what I felt. It was a sense of participation in everything. I wanted to live a million times more than anybody has ever lived.”
As it slowly dawns on Sorme that the killer is one of his close associates, he is forced to examine the nature of loyalty, guilt and responsibility. He learns that the deliverer of violent death can, by night, be a mysterious cloaked figure carrying a black bag, but by day can blend into the queue at the Post Office and go home on the number 59 ‘bus with complete impunity.
Other Ripper novels to explore include:
White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987) by Iain Sinclair
The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978) by Michael Dibdin
Pentecost Alley (1996) by Anne Perry
A Study in Terror (1966) by Ellory Queen
Mercedes Marie: The story of Mary Jane Kelly (2016) by Fusty Luggs