Patricia Cornwell, Portrait of a Killer
Bestselling author Patricia Cornwell, the creator of a series of acclaimed crime novels featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, has never seemed at a loss for either words or confidence. So when she announced not too long ago that she had irrefutable evidence solving the case of Jack the Ripper, the infamous serial killer who murdered at least seven women in London in 1888, most of the world took notice. This was, after all, a case that has been widely speculated upon for more than a century, yet a firm answer as to the identity of the killer has baffled and eluded experts.
So does Cornwell deliver the goods in “Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed?“ She certainly believes so, and many readers will, as well. USA Today once said that “No one depicts the human capability for evil better than Patricia Cornwell,“and that along with her considerable forensic and storytelling skills combine to build a highly compelling case for the fiend being one Walter Richard Sickert.
Sickert was an impressionist artist and apprentice to Whistler who was also a deeply disturbed psychopath whose hatred of women, especially the lower class prostitutes of the day, was one of the factors that led him to brutally butcher his victims in the slums of Londons East End. Cornwell links Sickert, who died peacefully in his bed in 1942, at the age of 81, to the Ripper letters that were written to the Metropolitan Police and the press, provides a detailed analysis of his paintings that depicted the horrific mutilation of his victims, and examines how his birth defects and subsequent genital surgical interventions were all part of turning him into a serial killer.
In the first chapter, “Mr. Nobody,“ she whets the readers appetite by setting the stage with a vivid description of the era and place in which Sickert lived, as well as lead character himself:
“Monday, August 6, 1888, was a bank holiday in London. The city was a carnival of wondrous things to do for as little as pennies if one could spare a few...On this bank holiday there were horse and cattle shows; special “cheap rates“ on trains; and the bazaars in Covent Garden overflowing with Sheffield plates, gold, jewelry, used military uniforms. If one wanted to pretend to be a soldier on this relaxed but rowdy day, he could do so with little expense and no questions asked. Or one could impersonate a copper by renting an authentic Metropolitan Police uniform from Angel‘s Theatrical Costumes in Camden Town, scarcely a two-mile stroll from where the handsome Walter Richard Sickert lived.
Twenty-eight-year-old Sickert had given up his obscure acting career for the higher calling of art. He was a painter, an etcher, a student of James McNeill Whistler, and a disciple of Edgar Degas. Young Sickert was himself a work of art: slender, with a strong upper body from swimming, a perfectly angled nose and jaw, thick wavy blond hair, and blue eyes that were as inscrutable and penetrating as his secret thoughts and piercing mind. One might almost have called him pretty, except for his mouth, which could narrow into a hard, cruel line....
Walter Sickert was an actor by nature more than by virtue of employment. He lived on the center stage of his secret, fantasy-driven life and was just as comfortable moving about unnoticed in the deep shadows of isolated streets as he was in the midst of throbbing crowds. He had a great range of voice and was a master of greasepaint and wardrobe. So gifted at disguise was he that as a boy he often went about unrecognized by his neighbors and family...But in the late summer of 1888 he gave himself a new stage name that during his life would never be linked to him, a name that soon enough would be far better known than those of Whistler, Irving, and Terry.
The actualization of Jack the Ripper‘s violent fantasies began on the carefree bank holiday of August 6, 1888, when he slipped out of the wings to make his debut in a series of ghastly performances that were destined to become the most celebrated so-called murder mystery in history. It is widely and incorrectly believed that his violent spree ended as abruptly as it began, that he struck out of nowhere and then vanished from the scene.
Decades passed, then fifty years, then a hundred, and his bloody sexual crimes have become anemic and impotent. They are puzzles, mystery weekends, games, and “Ripper Walks“ that end with pints in the Ten Bells pub. Saucy Jack, as the Ripper sometimes called himself, has starred in moody movies featuring famous actors and special effects and spates of what the Ripper said he craved: blood, blood, blood.“
In May 2001, Cornwell took a tour of Scotland Yard that interested her in the Ripper case, and in Sickert as a suspect. After she looked at Sickert‘s paintings, she was convinced she was onto something, and applied, for the first time ever, modern investigatory and forensic techniques to the Ripper crimes.
The amount of evidence she compiled, on everything from the life of the London poor to every piece of information that could be found on Sickert is exhaustive and was meticulously conducted. By enlisting the help of forensic experts, Cornwell poured over thousands of documents and reports, fingerprints, crime-scene photographs, original etchings and paintings, items of clothing, artists‘ paraphernalia, and traces of DNA. She refutes every previous theory ever held about the identity of Jack the Ripper. Without a doubt, this woman did her homework, in spades.
So does she build a rock solid case with a smoking gun? Each reader will have to draw their own conclusions, but lets just say that if he were being tried today and this evidence was being offered up in court, hed most likely be a goner. This is an intriguing, well-constructed, and page-turning read, and one can easily see why this has generated the buzz that is has in both the literary and investigative crime worlds.