Newest Review: ... away one of the more powerful attractions of Ripper books. Still, this is the least of the book's problems since it is unbelievably bad... more
Case Closed? Not a Chance
Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Patricia Cornwell
Member Name: SWSt
Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Patricia Cornwell
Advantages: An interesting new approach to the subject
Disadvantages: Weak, flawed arguments; massive leaps of logic ignore evidence
Cornwell claims she is taking a new tack in order to identify the killer. Using modern day forensic techniques, she looks to dissect everything that is known about the Ripper murders and re-evaluate all known facts, testimony and evidence in the light of modern investigative techniques to finally reveal the Ripper's identity. You certainly can't dispute Cornwell's qualifications for undertaking this task. As a former crime journalist, mortuary worker and crime novelist, she is well-versed in forensic techniques. So is the Ripper finally to be brought to justice after almost 120 years?
Well, no. Whilst Cornwell names the person she believes is responsible, her claim is no more convincing than any of the other candidates that have been put forward over the years and indeed, in some areas, is less convincing than rival theories.
First of all, though, let me save you £15 (the hardback RRP, although it can be picked up cheaper second hand). Normally I work very hard to avoid spoilers, but in this case, I'm going to make an exception and tell you who Cornwell fingers as the Ripper because Cornwell herself makes no effort to hide it. As a crime thriller writer, I expected her to create a sense of drama, slowly collecting evidence and constructing her case step by step before dramatically revealing the Ripper's name in the final chapters.
Not so. Go into any bookshop and look on the dust jacket or back cover and you will instantly see that Cornwell names artist Walter Sickert as the guilty man. This is a rather odd way to approach the book since it instantly robs it of any kind of mystery or suspense and takes away one of the more powerful attractions of Ripper books.
Still, this is the least of the book's problems since it is unbelievably badly written and I expected far, far better from such a well-established author. There is no real narrative flow and it leaps around with no sense of style or consistency. One minute we are looking at Sickert's childhood to "prove" that he fits the profile of a psychopathic killer; next we are investigating the murder of the Ripper's first victim. Then we're back looking at Sickert's family again, before moving onto yet another topic. It's thoroughly confusing and deeply dissatisfying. Given that it's written by an author who produces crime fiction for a living, I expected a strong narrative thread that at least would make it interesting to read, even if you disagreed with Cornwell's conclusions. Instead, I found it pedestrian, turgid and confusing.
I could almost forgive this if Cornwell presented compelling new evidence to show beyond all reasonable doubt that Sickert was, indeed, the Ripper. She never comes close and merely rakes up the same facts, figures and quotes that will be familiar to anyone who has read anything about the Ripper. Far from using modern day forensic techniques to analyse the evidence, she seems to base many of her conclusions on hearsay and speculation. The book is littered with weasel phrases like "it seems likely", "it is probable", "surely Sickert must have..." and so on. She will link several of these guesses and suppositions together to show what "must" have happened and it's never convincing; if just one of these leaps of logic is wrong, the whole pack of cards comes tumbling down. Conventional wisdom holds that "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link" and Cornwell's chain of logic in identifying Sickert as the killer consists of nothing but weak links.
Let me give you a fairly typical example. One of Sickert's paintings shows an old handcart sitting outside a basket shop in France. The handcart is of the style often used by police in the late 1800s to transport seriously injured or dead people to the hospital or mortuary. Records suggest that such a cart was used to transport the body of the first Ripper victim. Therefore (according to Cornwell) Sickert (as is common with psychopaths) MUST have returned to the scene of the crime to watch the police fumbling around and therefore he MUST have seen the cart being used and placed it in his later picture as both a "souvenir" of his kill and to taunt the police. Yes Pat, of course he did.
This is not the only time that Cornwell points to Sickert's painting as "proof" of his guilt (it's not even the least convincing), and is pretty indicative of the "evidence" she produces to "prove" her theory. Despite repeatedly assuring the reader that this can be the only logical conclusion, you are actually left with the overall impression Cornwell first decided on their conclusion and then went out to find the evidence to support it, rather than using the available evidence to reach a conclusion that fits all the facts.
Here's another example: Several of the Ripper letters contain the phrase "ha ha" (or some variant) as a taunt to the police. Sickert was once a pupil of the artist James Whistler who, by all accounts, had an annoying habit of frequently laughing in exactly that way. Therefore, by mimicking his old master and using this phrase in his letters, Sickert was clearly identifying himself to the police who were just too stupid to realise it. That is one serious leap of logic.
Cornwell also has a tendency to make sweeping statements without backing them up with any real evidence. For example, there are several letters supposedly written by Jack the Ripper, some of these are generally believed to be genuine, but many are considered fakes. Cornwell ignores this, simply proclaiming "I now believe that the majority of them are real" without providing a single shred of evidence as to why this. I have no problem with re-evaluating or challenging conventional wisdom, but there have to be reasonable grounds for doing. Once again, this is the arrogance of the author coming through: we should accept her assertion as the truth simply because she is telling us.
This breathtaking arrogance runs throughout the book. Just look at the subtitle: "Case Closed". Effectively, Cornwell is claiming that she has succeeded where dozens of other highly intelligent and competent investigators (including Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle) have failed. She and she alone, has proved beyond all reasonable doubt that Sickert was The Ripper. I'm sorry Patricia, I disagree. Everything you produce is, at best, circumstantial and at worst, highly dubious. Despite her claims to the contrary, I have no doubt that if this case were brought to trial today, even the most incompetent Defence lawyer would have little difficulty in getting Sickert acquitted.
Cornwell also makes the classic error of the amateur historian by refusing to view things in the context of their own time. She castigates the police for conducting an incompetent investigation that may have resulted in vital evidence being overlooked or accidentally destroyed. Certainly, there were mistakes in the way the police investigated the murders, but they were simply following the procedures of their time (at a time when the idea of an organised, formal police force was still pretty new and investigative techniques primitive). Certainly, when compared with the painstaking investigations of the early 21st century, the police investigation was shoddy... but I'm sure that in 120 years, future law enforcement agencies will be equally incredulous at the "naivety" of 2012 police.
The sad thing about all of this is that there may well be some truth in Cornwell's claims. This is not the first time that Sickert has been identified as The Ripper, and there is certainly some evidence to support the claim. However, he is no more or less convincing as a suspect than other people who have been identified as the guilty party. The simple fact is, it's unlikely that we will ever know for sure and for Cornwell to claim that she has closed the case says more about the arrogance of the author than it does about the validity of her argument.
Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed
Little, Brown & Company
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: Portrait of an Author's Arrogance
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