Patricia Cornwell - Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed

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Patricia Cornwell turns to fact and myth in Jack the Ripper: Case Closed

Nov 17, 2002
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Excellent, thorough research into one of the most notorious serial killers of all time.

Cons:Some of the passages get downright horrifying to read -- not for the sensitive.

The Bottom Line: This is one of the most surprising and well done true crime books I've read this year. Her theory on the idenity of the Ripper is fascinating and convincing.


I had read Patricia Cornwell when her novels first came out, interigued by a new approach in the tried-and-true detective story -- namely the character of Kay Scarpetta. But I had stopped after a while -- not only were the novels becoming a bit rote in nature, but the gruesome quotent was growing and I was getting too unsettled as I read.

Then I spotted this one on the 'just-in' shelf and decided to pick it up. I'll admit, I've always been interested in Victorian London, and nothing shook it up as did the series of murders in the squalid Whitechapel area in the autumn of 1888. It was the first serial murder to receive wide press, often more conjecture than not, and sent a newly formed police force into the forefront of investigation.

There's been a host of books, films, novels, and what have you written about the mysterious Jack the Ripper, and he's inspired numerous theories and copies about the mind set of the nature of the psychopath. Drawing on her experience in the world of forensics, Cornwell uses modern DNA testing, investigative methods, and imagination into this notorious case.

I had expected something else when I picked this up. Most theories center around the idea that the Ripper was a madman, or a coverup to protect Britain's royal family from scandal. A few other books on the subject had touched on other theories, but Cornwell throws everything that you've ever thought about this case out the window, and starts fresh with the evidence at hand.

The style of the book is engaging, and despite a few forays into a mess of scientific terms, what she conjectures is startling, and very very convincing -- and all the more terrifying. Forget Masons, lunatic foriegners, royal dukes or the poor and dispossessed.

The real Ripper was probably a prominent society figure, an artist, married at the time, and possessed of an intellect that was both clever, and utterly devoid of empathy for anyone. His taunting letters to the police continued after the spree of killings, and the true number of his victims may have well been in the dozens. Cornwell puts forth the figure of Walter Sickert, an artist and society man, a former apprentice of the american artist Whistler, and was psychologically damaged and formed in a way that we can see the oncoming horrors with plenty of dread.

The five most well known of the Ripper's victims were slaughtered in the notorious Whitechapel slums of London within weeks of each other. All were women in their thirties or forties, with the exception of Mary Kelly; they were prostitutes, and the cases were handled and investigated in a way that would horrify most police departments these days.

Cornwell uses modern forensic techniques and coolly examines each potential killer until there's only one left. With the figure of Sickert, she gives us a mountain of evidence that is enlightening and frightening at the same time. Cornwell uses scientific methods, writings of the period, interviews with psychologists and her own experiences to give this theory and story an entirely new light. She also delves into the Victorian psyche about women, the nature of prostitution, crime, investigation, and shows us just how a notorious case was bungled and the obvious clues left dangling for more than a century. It's an exhaustive work on the author's part, as she retraces the murders and did a great deal of the investigative work herself. But don't let this fool you into thinking that this is a tabliod version of the story -- it's not.

I found the book to be very engrossing, and despite the length and technical terms found it very hard to put down. If your reading habits enjoy mysteries and history, I think you might find this one to be enough to hold your interest.

Just be sure to leave the lights on.


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