Here’s a book that delivers on its title. “The Big Book of Jack the Ripper” runs to over 800 jumbo pages and more than 50 entries. And even those numbers don’t say it all. Harking back to the pulp magazines in which some of these tales first appeared, the text is laid out two columns to a page. The sum total of printed words is prodigious.
It’s all based on fact, albeit not many hard-and-fast ones. For a few weeks in 1888, an unknown sicko terrorized the notorious Whitechapel neighborhood of London, using a knife to kill and mutilate a number of prostitutes — at most 11, and perhaps as few as five. Why, Jack the Ripper’s a piker next to 21st-century serial killers, who slaughter dozens of victims, sometimes within a matter of minutes. But it wasn’t the tally that gave Jack his perverse immortality. He lives on because of his defiance (he allegedly sent taunting letters to the police); his viciousness (he cut up his victims in unspeakable ways); his catchy name, which he seems to have coined himself in an early example of pop-culture branding; and his elusiveness. He was never caught; the murders simply stopped.
[‘The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes’ and other picks by Michael Dirda]
This is the latest Big Book brought to us by the venerable Otto Penzler, who is also the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York. Other titles in the series include “The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories ” and “The Big Book of Adventure Stories ,” but Jack gets special treatment. Unlike the other Bigs, which limit themselves to fiction, this one leads off with several nonfiction pieces that summarize and interpret what we know or surmise about Jack and his crimes.
This section contains one of the strongest pieces in the anthology, a sifting of the evidence by former Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter . Hunter became an expert on the case — a Ripperologist in insider’s parlance — while working on his most recent novel, “I, Ripper.” One of the many unanswered questions about Jack is: Who was he? Suspects ranged from low-life madmen to a royal duke. Without giving away Hunter’s well-argued solution, let me just say that the title of his essay, “Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick,” hints at the approach he takes.
In the book’s much larger fictional portion, we find short stories, novellas and a novel (Marie Belloc Lowndes’s “The Lodger,” on which Alfred Hitchcock based his 1927 film of the same name). Just about any variation on the Ripper legend you can imagine crops up here. Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper. Jack back from the dead. Vampire Jack. Jack wannabes. Jack at the old Grand Guignol Theatre in Paris. And much, much, much more.
[‘Women Crime Writers’ review: Well-known and unfairly forgotten favorites]
Perhaps the most prestigious writer to grace these pages is Isak Dinesen, the Great Dane of fablelike storytelling; her contribution, however, is more admirable than exciting. The truth is that, no matter how you slice him (sorry about that), Jack is pulp material, and Dinesen had no gift for pulp.
Much more enjoyable is “The Decorator,” a novella by the contemporary Russian mystery writer Boris Akunin. One explanation for the end of Jack’s murder spree is that when London got too hot for him, he fled the country and transplanted his franchise to a new metropolis. In “The Decorator,” the unlucky city is Moscow, home to a police detective named Erast Petrovich Fandorin, who is head-turningly handsome, devilishly clever and “rarely mistaken.” He persuades reluctant informants to talk by first determining what psychological type they belong to, then exploiting that type’s characteristic weakness. This approach is less cumbersome than it may sound because “there weren’t all that many types — according to Erast Petrovich there were exactly sixteen, and there was an approach for each of them.” We get to see Fandorin apply his method to a “tortoise,” or introvert. The right move with such an opponent is to “show your belly”: that is, portray yourself as unthreatening, convince the other guy that “you and I are berries from the same field, we speak the same language.” To me at least, this flim-flam is pulp at its finest.
As for “The Big Book” as a whole, it can get a bit monotonous if read industriously — the same cloth sewn into one suit of clothes after another. Take your time, dip in and out, put the book aside for a while and then come back to it. And I’m sure you won’t lose sight of the fact that, entertaining as these stories are, Jack the Ripper was a pathetic and loathsome human being.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
THE BIG BOOK OF JACK THE RIPPER
Edited by Otto Penzler
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. 825 pp. Paperback, $25.
Jack the Ripper was renowned artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942) according to Cornwell, in case anyone hasn't yet heard. The evidence Cornwell accumulates toward that conclusion in this brilliant, personal, gripping book is very strong, and will persuade many. In May 2001, Cornwell took a tour of Scotland Yard that interested her in the Ripper case, and in Sickert as a suspect. A look at Sickert's "violent" paintings sealed her interest, and she became determined to apply, for the first time ever, modern investigatory and forensic techniques to the crimes that horrified London more than 100 years ago. The book's narrative is complex, as Cornwell details her emotional involvement in the case; re-creates life in Victorian times, particularly in the late 1880s, and especially the cruel existence of the London poor; offers expertly observed scenarios of how, based on the evidence, the killings occurred and the subsequent investigations were conducted; explains what was found by the team of experts she hired; and gives a psycho-biography of Sickert. The book is filled with newsworthy revelations, including the successful use of DNA analysis to establish a link between an envelope mailed by the Ripper and two envelopes used by Sickert. There are also powerful comparisons made between Sickert's drawing style and that of the Ripper; between words and turns of phrases used by both men; and much other circumstantial evidence. Also newsworthy is Cornwell's conclusion that Sickert continued to kill long after the Ripper supposedly lay down his blade, reaping dozens of victims over his long life. Compassionate, intense, superbly argued, fluidly written and impossible to put down, this is the finest and most important true-crime book to date of the 21st century. Main selection of the BOMC, Literary Guild, Mystery Guild and Doubleday Book Club.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.