NEW BOOK ON JACK IS A JOLLY GOOD RIP
Victorian England's most famous murder case gets a good workout
by Don Stradley
Despite Bruce Robinson's boast that he's busted Jack the Ripper, a few other authors have crowed about having done exactly that. Stephen Knight's The Final Solution pinned the Ripper crimes on a trio of men, including the artist Walter Sickert. In 2002, Patricia Cornwell's Portrait of a Killer - Jack The Ripper: Case Closed, swung for the fences and put the whole thing on Sickert. Then there was the alleged "Ripper diary" that came along in the 1990s, which pointed to James Maybrick as the Ripper, the very Maybrick who was murdered by his wife in a rather sensational London case of 1889. Robinson leapfrogs over the others, and makes a strong case that England's Ripper was none other than Maybrick's brother Michael, a famous singer and song writer of the period. Like most Ripper suspects, there's a big pile of arrows pointing at this fellow; he deserves a look.
According to Robinson's They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper, Michael Maybrick was as diabolical as a Batman villain, and filled with such red raging hatred for his sister-in-law that he murdered a bunch of prostitutes - more than the five usually attributed to Jack - plus some children; then he poisoned his own brother, framed his sister-in-law for the death of James, and then forged the diary that would come to light more than a century later. It's a bit much to swallow, but it's compelling. I can't say if Robinson is any closer to solving the Ripper case than anyone else, and I'm not even certain that anyone really wants to know the Ripper's true identity. The Ripper is better off as a shadow man, a black hole of evil and cruelty. We can project whatever we want onto him.
In an early chapter of They All Love Jack, we're told that the Ripper was "a totally sane, highly intelligent psychopath whose sense of fun animated in some esoteric area of his thinking where humor and homicide collide." It's a mouthful, but in this whopping, 800-page monster of a book, Robinson will often interrupt his own narrative, as if he'd handed his keyboard over to Lester Bangs for a moment while he went to the toilet, with something sort of clever and angry. At times it appears Robinson takes the whole Ripper deal as a personal insult. (For instance: he bristles at the "perverse, almost heroic status that has evolved around this prick, as though he were someone special.") Robinson not only hates the Ripper, but despises the silly police force that mucked things up, and the hundreds of "Ripperologists" who have, through the decades since 1888, turned the case into a sort of cozy mystery. These Ripper fanboys, with their "constipated thinking," set Robinson off on regular tangents. (My favorite is when he depicts them as "a gang of shagged-out seagulls in the wake of a phantom steamer.") Of course, like anyone writing about the Ripper, Robinson doesn't shy from the grislier aspects of the case - he undoubtedly had fun writing that the remains of Mary Kelly were "carried out in a bucket" - but if you're as bloody serious as Robinson, you're allowed to rub a reader's nose into the gore.
When not bashing Ripperologists, Robinson puts the boot to Victorian England. It was a toweringly hypocritical and complex place; the age of consent was 12, the Royals kept up a pompous, untouchable front, and "the sub-British ate, slept, and wiped their arses in cellars full of vermin and promiscuous death." Wartime violence was in the air, with stories of British atrocities making their way home. Particularly riveting is Robinson's depiction of General Herbert Kitchener, who raided a temple near Khartoum, dug up the corpse of the Madhi, and bashed it to bits with a hammer. "With that hammer in his hand," writes Robinson, "Kitchener belonged to Satan." For sure, the first fifth of the book seems written so we understand that bloodletting and brutality was ingrained in England's character, equaled only by the Victorian love of money. "Wealth was a deity in Victorian England," says Robinson, "and everything was subservient to the maintenance of it."
Where Robinson's research differs from most Ripper investigations is in his treatment of the "Ripper letters," those sinister notes written in jagged scrawls and sent to Scotland Yard from various far-flung locations. Rather than dismiss them as hoaxes, as has usually been the rule, he makes a beautiful case for their authenticity and links them to his suspect. Michael Maybrick's ability to change his handwriting, plus his fiendish sense of humor and wordplay, fit into Robinson's theory, as does Maybrick's traveling schedule. And even if Maybrick wasn't the author, the letters contain facts that only the Ripper would've known. Maybrick or not, these letters, long thought fraudulent, indeed appear to have been written by the killer. If Robinson has done nothing else, he's convinced me that the Ripper was writing to the police, taunting them all the way.
The Ripper's connection to the Freemasons has been explored in the past, but with nothing like Robinson's pit bull ferocity. Through painstaking research, he's believable when he portrays the Ripper as a man very familiar with Freemason rituals, and that the Freemasons not only did their share to cover up anything having to do with the crimes, but divorced themselves from both Michael and James Maybrick (both, incidentally, involved with the Freemasons). That Robinson goes on rather obsessively (and for far too many pages) about the Freemasons nearly spoils what is otherwise a thought-provoking, occasionally brilliant book. And I was also put off by Robinson's one-note argument that Michael Maybrick was simply a psychopath, and that psychos do crazy things. That's it?
Ultimately, Robinson succeeds in what he sets out to do, which is to blow the dust from the old theories and expose them as claptrap. The rogues gallery of suspects that have taken root over the years don't stand a chance with Robinson, from the "insane surgeon", to the "vengeful homosexual", to the "womb collector". The same goes for the Duke of Clarence, described by Robinson as an ineffectual wimp who could barely cut his own meat, never mind obliterate a live woman, and the jittery foreigner Kosminski, "a 98-pound weakling, living off crusts in the gutter." They're all waylaid by Robinson, gutted like fish, the remains of their mythology ready to be taken out in buckets.