The Big Book of Jack the Ripper

No, I’m not a Ripperologist. I do not (often) go to Casebook.org.

But I don’t have to be a Ripperologist to know about Jack the Ripper, and neither do you. Never being caught and writing (maybe) those taunting letters to the police gave him a posthumous infamy not attained by those more vicious.

I’ve rarely gone out of my way to read about the Ripper – no nonfiction beyond some articles, a single novel and some short stories. All those, except for Robert Bloch’s The Night of the Ripper, were encountered by chance.

Ripper movies are another matter, but I don’t do movies at this blog. (For the record, my favorite Ripper films are Time After Time and Jack’s Back.)

So why did I ask Amazon to send me a review copy of an 864 page book on the subject?

Mostly because I didn’t have a copy of Robert Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” in the house, and we were discussing it on the Deep Ones discussion group at LibraryThing. And I am mildly curious about the Ripper.

Review: The Big Book of Jack the Ripper, ed. Otto Penzler, 2016.big-book-of-jack-the-ripper

Yes, it’s a big book, 864 pages, 11 non-fiction pieces and 41 pieces of fiction, and there’s no way I’m going to mention every single entry. (And, while it’s just barely manageable in print form and nicely laid out in double columns, you may want to spare your wrists the effort and go for the kindle edition. There are no illustrations.)

This book should satisfy everyone interested in the Ripper killings. The non-fiction pieces provide the context and introduction to the historical murders. Obsessive collectors on Ripper material will find new Ripper material here. (Though I note only one parenthetical mention of a suspect I find credible, American doctor Francis Tumblety.)

The first 136 pages are taken up with the historical details of the Ripper murders and the wake he left in criminology.

David Abrahamsen’s “Victims in the Night” (1992) lays out the squalor of London’s East End where the “canonical five” murders occurred, the shared traits of four of the victims (separated from husbands, in their forties, mothers, and a history of alcoholism), and the organizational problems that hampered investigations into the crimes.

Maxim Jakubowski and Nathan Braund present “Key Texts” (1999) – witness statements and autopsy reports – which serve as a useful check on how historians and fiction writers in the rest of the book present the murders. “The Jack the Ripper Murders” (1947) collects contemporary newspaper coverage from The Times.

Peter Underwood’s “Who Was Jack the Ripper?” (1987) is a nice summary of the case for and against numerous suspects put forth over the years including some likely hoaxes.

Original to the book is Stephen Hunter’s intriguing “Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick”. Opening with remarkable candor – “Who was Jack the Ripper? I don’t know. Nobody knows.” – he goes back to basics to propose a new theory of how the Ripper killed and escaped and proposes that a very unusual set of physical characteristics and abilities was necessary, characteristics that eliminate almost all named suspects.

The fiction ranges from the Ripper as an historical character to Ripper copy cats to fantastic tales where the spirit of the Ripper has transcended his time and place. Many of the fantastic stories first appeared in Gardner Dozois and Susan Casper’s Ripper! anthology from 1988. Some authors – Edward Hoch, Robert Bloch, and Anthony Boucher – make multiple appearances, sometimes under pen names.

For me, the standout pieces of fiction were Lyndsay Faye’s “The Sparrow and the Lark”, original to the anthology, and Marie Belloc Lowndes’ oft-adapted for film and stage The Lodger from 1913.

Haunting in its beauty, tricks of perspective, and story of fatal sisterly rival and deception, Faye’s story is narrated by the Ripper’s last victim, Mary Kelly.

The “sickly suspense” of Lowndes’ novel isn’t the identity of the Ripper. (Actually, there is no Ripper in her story. Her killer is named the Avenger.) It’s obvious early on who the Avenger is and that he’s renting a room in the heroine’s house. It’s just how long Mrs. Bunting’s rationalizations, normalcy bias, class prejudice, and economic need will last in denying that the nice eccentric gentleman upstairs is a murderer. (I suspect, if they haven’t done it already, Marxists and feminist critics could have fun with this story.)

The Lowndes’ novel is part of a set of effective stories which have the Ripper in some sense penetrating the domestic citadel of the middle class Victorian home. The heroine of Anne Perry’s “Jack”, original to the collection, wonders, like so many Victorian middle class women, what exactly her husband is up to when he leaves for work and goes out at night. Barbara Paul’s “Jack Be Quick” (1991) has a heroine wandering much the same.

Related to these tales is Patrice Chaplin’s “By Flower and Dean Street” (1976). Contemporary British middle class anxieties of the 1970s are heightened when its housewife heroine begins to seem insane with strange visions.

The anonymously penned “In the Slaughteryard” from 1890 may be the earliest piece of Ripper fiction and is a lurid nocturnal encounter with the killer in rendering plant in London’s East End.

Several series detectives make appearance here.

The Ripper shows up in 1889 Moscow during Lent in Boris Akunin’s “The Decorator” (2007), an installment in his Erast Fandorin series. I liked the setting and details of Russian life even if the tale was a bit wordy – and it’s certainly bloody.

Loren Estleman’s “G.I. Jack” didn’t do much for me. Original to the book, it’s part of his “Four Horseman” series about Detroit detectives during WWII.

The Stripper”, H. H. Holmes (actually Anthony Boucher) from 1945 is part of his Sister Ursula series, and the tale shows off Boucher’s erudition and hinges on some details of Catholic lore.

And, of course, it’s inevitable that we would get some Sherlock Holmes vs. the Ripper face-offs. The most successful is Ellery Queen’s A Study in Terror which has the detective receiving an alleged lost manuscript from Dr. Watson. The Ellery Queen frame was written by the cousins lurking behind that authorial name and the Sherlock Holmes part was mostly penned by Paul W. Fairman. I’m surprised Geoffrey A. Landis’ Holmes-Ripper tale “The Singular Habits of Wasps” doesn’t show up in the book, but perhaps Penzler failed to get the rights.

Other stories original to the collection are “A Matter of Blood” from Jeffrey Deaver, which rings an interesting variation on the idea of royal involvement with the murders, and Daniel Stashower’s “The Ripper Experience” which is mostly interesting for what it takes to mount a modern museum exhibit.

Also original to the book is Stephen Hunter’s “Jack the Ripper in Hell” which is exactly what the title says. An editor excised it from Hunter’s 2015 novel I, Ripper for its irreverence and clashing tone with the rest of the novel. The eternal punishment of the Ripper is also considered in “A Punishment to Fit the Crimes” (1962) from Richard A. Gordon.

One of the more unusual and non-fantastical stories is Isak Dinesen’s “The Uncertain Heiress” (1949) which presents its heroine with several moral problems presented by rich relatives suddenly interested in her.

Several of the fantastical tales work well.

The best of the ones bringing Jack back into the world via séance is R. Chetwynd-Hayes “The Gatecrasher”.

Robert Bloch shows up several times, but time has spoiled the effects of his 1943 story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”. “A Toy for Juliette” (1967) is more successful, but its main success was setting up Harlan Ellison’s sequel “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”, also from 1967, of Jack the Ripper loosed in a future, if depopulated, Utopia via time machine.

Ray Russell’s “Sagittarius” (1962) presents many things – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, classic French theater, Gilles de Rais, and the Grand Guignol — besides the Ripper in its clever, twisting club story that genuinely surprises.

The confession of Jack the Ripper descendant and imitator in Karl Edward Wagner’s “An Awareness of Angels” (1988) presents a very paranoid justification for his crimes though I think the tale is marred at the end by upping the ante.

Additional Thoughts (because, if you’re reading this, your patience isn’t exhausted yet)

George Bernard Shaw’s “Blood Money to Whitechapel” (1888) is a wonderfully vitriolic piece. When he says

However, these things have to be faced. If the line to be taken is that suggested by the converted West End papers – if the people are still to yield up their wealth to the Clanricarde class, and get what they can back as charity through Lady Bountiful, then the policy for the people is plainly a policy of terror. Every gaol blown up, every window broken, every shop looted, every corpse found disemboweled, means another ten pound note for ‘ransom’

he’s clearly being ironic. However, it also prefigures Shaw’s later real enthusiasm for murder to pursue policy ends as even a defender acknowledges.

Ramsey Campbell’s “Jack’s Little Friend” (1975) not only gets away with second person narration, but, shows one of his characteristic themes – protagonists being unable to relate and communicate their experience. A leaden box found in a marsh is opened and the protagonist’s tongue becomes inarticulate as he begins to have menacing visions.

Cleveland Moffett’s “The Mysterious Card Unveiled” (1896) is not only a sequel to Moffett’s popular riddle story “The Mysterious Card” but, for students of the history of weird fiction, but shows an interesting mixture of modern technology and scientific theories with the supernatural (though I’ve found no reference to the kulos demon mentioned – supposedly it’s from Asia).

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.  Reviews of miscelleanous non-fiction works are here.

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