Jack The Ripper

PEOPLE OF ABANDONED CHARACTER . . . Between the covers

There can be no historical event – save, perhaps, the assassination of John F Kennedy – which has attracted more theories, speculation and books, both fiction and non-fiction, as the killings attributed to Jack The Ripper in the autumn of 1888. My feature JACK THE RIPPER . . . In fiction, from the early days of this website, looks at just a few novels which have retold the tale.


Now, debut novelist Clare Whitfield has her moment on the stage with People Of Abandoned Character. Susannah Chapman is a rather unusual woman, in her early thirties, who has known at first hand the dreadful deprivation of that part of the east End of London known as The Nichol. The contemporary map of the area (below) grades streets with colours according to the level of poverty, with red indicating relatively comfortable residents through blue to black – the depths of squalor.


Susannah has no recollection of her father, and a memory of her mother so horrifying that she only turns to it in her nightmares. She is eventually rescued by her grandparents who take her to live with them in Reading. She chooses to become a nurse, and is accepted as a trainee at The London Hospital on Whitechapel Road, seen below in a 19thC photograph.


When Susannah attracts the attention of a young doctor, Thomas Lancaster and, after a whirlwind romance, she leaves The London as Mrs Lancaster to become the mistress of a delightful riverside home in Chelsea. Mistress? Not quite. The first sign that all may not be well is that Thomas Lancaster has a housekeeper named Mrs Wiggs, and the lady is a graduate of the Mrs Danvers school of domestic management. Yes, I know that’s an anachronism, but fans of Judith Anderson and Rebecca will know what I mean.

The early passion and harmony of the marriage soon dissipates, and Susannah begins to be disturbed both by her husband’s violent sexual demands and his frequent nocturnal absences, from which he returns feverish and dishevelled. Soon, the narrative of the novel begins to synchronise with what we know about the actual Ripper murders. Ripperologists can take the roll call of well-known characters safe in the knowledge that The Gang’s All Here. We meet the victims themselves, of course, but also the walk-on parts such as the actor Richard Mansfield, John Pizer, the Police Surgeon Dr Phillips and dear old Fred Abberline put in an appearance.

People Of Abandoned Character is a bravura piece of story-telling which gleefully rises above a tale of real-life horror which, by its very familiarity, has lost some of its sting. We eventually learn that Susannah is not quite the put-upon damsel in distress she might want us to believe in. The conclusion of the story is as astonishing and enterprising a solution to the eternal Ripper mystery as I have ever read, and fans of Gothick gore and melodrama will certainly not be disappointed. It is published by Head of Zeus and is out now.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . People of Abandoned Character

There is no single real-life criminal event in history which has captured the imagination of readers, writers, historians and criminologists like the gory saga of the Whitechapel Murders. The word ‘enthusiast’ seems inappropriate to describe someone drawn to the butchering of five women in that dreadful autumn of 1888. How can someone be ‘enthusiastic’ about such carnage? Ripperologist doesn’t work, either, as it seems to conjure up images of a harmless hobby like stamp collecting or fossil hunting.

POAC001There have been countless non-fiction books written on the subject, some providing solutions, but none conclusive. Several fictional detectives have gone head-to-head with The Ripper, and if you click this link, you can read a piece I wrote about the genre. Most recently, Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five sought to transform the murdered women from mere corpses to real people.

Now, first-time author Clare Whitfield enters the lists with People Of Abandoned Characters, which centres on a  woman who begins to suspect that her new husband, a doctor, may be involved with the unfolding horror of the Whitechapel murders. Do his absences really coincide with the grisly discoveries of the murdered women, or is she putting two and two together and making five?

The advanced publicity says that People Of Abandoned Character:

“… explores the smoke and mirrors of perceived social mobility, the role of wealthy society and the responsibility to the poor (or not as it may be the case), toxic relationships and narcissistic abuse, gender equality and freedom to pursue personal ambition.”

The printed book looks and feels absolutely gorgeous, and I hope the story lives up to the advanced publicity. It is published by Head Of Zeus and will be out on 1st October. Watch this space for the detailed review.

punch critical 063605

JACK THE RIPPER … In fiction

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 TCUMS.jpgKelly, 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)

Novelist_Marie_Adelaide_Belloc_LowndesBelloc-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.”

Lodger Composite

WILSON-obit-web-videoSixteenByNine1050Colin 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,

RITD“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








KIndleKINDLE ROUNDUP, JULY 25th 2016. It has to be said, for all that it’s a wonderful invention, and has revolutionised reading, The Kindle (other devices are available!) can provide a pitfall for the book reviewer. While a physical To Be Read pile is ever visible, and sits in the corner looking at you in an accusing fashion, the equivalent stack of books on the digital reader quietly goes away when the power is turned off. So, with apologies to the writers and publishers who have trusted me with their offspring, here is my first, but belated, look at some great titles.

Mercedes MarieMercedes Marie by Fusty Luggs
Of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper, the one who has intrigued writers and Ripperologists the most is Mary Jane – or Marie Jeannette – Kelly. She was the youngest of them, and despite there being no photograph of her in life, some people have imagined her as beautiful and vivacious, so unlike the poor broken down women whose deaths preceded hers. The author takes an imaginative and compelling look at how a beautiful girl from Limerick, with friends in high places, came to end her life as a butchered corpse in a Whitechapel hovel. The author? She lives in Wiltshire, England, and the name has an interesting definition in The Urban Dictionary. She has a blog, and can also be found on Twitter. You can get hold of a copy  from Amazon in the usual way.

No AccidentNo Accident by Robert Crouch
Both the author and his central character, Kent Fisher, are Environmental Health officers. You might not have put that occupation at the top of a list of those likely to become amateur sleuths, but when Fisher is called to the ironically named Tombstone Leisure Park to investigate a fatal accident, you will soon learn that his eagle eye for detail and his scientific training make him more than a match for those trying to hoodwink the police. You can read more about Robert Crouch on his website and by checking out his Twitter feed. Just for a change, here’s a link to Waterstones, who are selling Robert’s book in paperback, but the Kindle version is downloadable in the usual way.

Falling SunsFalling Suns by J.A. Corrigan
This dark tale about a mother seeking revenge for her murdered child is a police procedural with a difference. Rachel has left the police force, but when her young son goes missing, and then is found murdered, her life spirals into depression, and then shapes into white hot anger. Her cousin Michael is convicted of the little boy’s murder, but is declared insane, and is sent to a secure institution. Rachel resumes her police career, but when she learns that Michael is being considered for release, she is faced with a terrible dilemma. Should she move on with her life, or use her official know-how to exact a terrible revenge? The author was a physiotherapist before turning to writing full time, and her website is here. Falling Suns is her second novel, and  it’s currently in stock in print at Waterstone’s, and Foyles. You can get your Kindle version at Amazon.

The Woman In The WoodsThe Woman In The Woods by Louise Mullins
Domestic Noir is certainly ‘the new black’, and the psychological thrills and chills that lurk behind suburban net curtains are employed with great relish here. Rachel Harper is a reporter whose career is maybe not quite on the rocks, but is certainly stuck in the low-tide mud. When a local student goes missing, and then is found dead, Rachel senses the chance to revive her journalistic CV. Her search for the truth behind the young woman’s death takes her to places where preserving her life becomes a higher priority than enhancing her Linkedin profile. Louise Mullins is based in Bristol, is a clinical psychologist who works with serious offenders. She has written seven previous novels, about which there are more details on her website. Go to Amazon to buy the Kindle version of this novel.

Unquiet SoulsUnquiet Souls by Liz Mistry
This police procedural introduces us to DI Gus McGuire. Central to the case is the horribly topical crime of child trafficking, and McGuire’s investigations are triggered when the dead body of a prostitute is found. When terrified children are found locked away in an attic, McGuire links the two cases, and soon finds he has to hunt a resourceful and evil criminal – nicknamed The Matchmaker. The author has written very frankly in Female First about how she suffered from depression, and thus found the completion of this novel an uphill struggle. The book is released at the end of July. Check here for further details.

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