Patricia Cornwell Takes Another Stab at Jack The Ripper

RIPPER: THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER SICKERT by Patricia Cornwell hits bookstores tomorrow (2/28/17).

Corwell is not the first person to pin the Jack the Ripper crimes on Walter Sickert (1860-1942). The work of several investigators before her lead to him. She was the first to apply cutting-edge forensic technology to the remaining evidence, which, when combined with details of the time period, makes for a fascinating investigation and a thrilling read.

I read Cornwell’s first book on the subject, PORTRAIT OF A KILLER: JACK THE RIPPER — CASE CLOSED, when it first came out in 2002. On tour for that book, Cornwell came to Chicago where I then lived. Borders and the Chicago Public Library co-hosted the event, which was held in the beautiful Winter Garden atop the Harold Washington Library. I no longer own that book, as I passed it on to a fellow Cornwell fan, so I didn’t refer to it for this review, but I can say that her new effort is meatier, much prettier, and still just as horrifying the second time around.

As for the pretty side of things: it is printed using both black and red text. There is an abundance of informative photos and illustrations. It is over 500 pages long and heavy as a brick, yet it is the thickness of a 300-page book. The paper is thinner than that used in the average hardcover nonfiction book, but it is high quality, almost glossy.

As for horrifying, I mean, of course, the content. Cornwell paints vivid descriptions of the crimes and
the times. Some of the content of this updated and expanded book resonated with me from reading Cornwell’s first book-length work on the subject, as well as CHASING THE RIPPER, an Amazon short that came out in 2014, but other information is new. Cornwell addresses the criticisms of both her investigation (such as the erroneous claim that she destroyed paintings by Sickert to acquire his DNA) and the first book (she was presumptuous to say “case closed”). She claims she sometimes wishes she’d never gotten involved with the case because it has become all consuming and she’s spent millions of her own dollars on the research. I enjoyed reading about how she got involved in the case and how the research has developed over the years.

Cornwell (source)

Those of you familiar with Cornwell’s fiction know that she’s committed to seeking justice for the victims of horrendous crimes. In the case of Jack the Ripper, she believes there were probably many more victims of his deranged violence than were attributed to him due to contemporary police procedures and class biases of the day.

The brutal descriptions and actual crime scene and morgue photographs make me squeamish. I’m no fan of true crime, but what I found most interesting is Cornwell’s descriptions of late 19th century medical and police procedures. Did you know fistulas were rather common in the 19th century? Many people were born with them and/or developed them. Walter Sickert was born with one on his penis (or possibly his anus) and underwent three corrective surgeries as a child, which would have been exceedingly painful, probably not successful, and possibly mutilated his penis. Can you imagine having surgery without anesthesia? His condition would have had to be desperate for his parents to put him through that. Cornwell believes his fistula and the horrific surgeries may have led to Sickert’s psychological derangement.

Literary side-bar: Charles Dickens (1812-1870) developed a fistula around his anus and had a successful reparative surgery in 1841.

In 2002, that first Ripper book had a lot of pre-publication buzz. I read the book because I was a relatively new fan of Cornwell’s fiction (I started reading her in 1999) and I thought it would be interesting to see how she applied modern investigative techniques and technology to a historic–and still open–case. Plus, I love reading about the 19th century. This updated and expanded book is definitely worth a revisit.

Author: Patricia Cornwell
Title: Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer, February 28, 2017
Source: Review copy
Bottom line: Highly recommend for true crime readers and/or those interested in 19th-century crime and history, particularly medical and police techniques. Art enthusiasts may also find it interesting as Cornwell compares Sickert’s paintings to crime scene evidence.

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