No Further Arrests Have Been Made
The Big Book of Jack the Ripper
Edited by Otto Penzler
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Vintage Books, 2016
Indefatigable editor Otto Penzler, in a career that’s spanned fifty years, has published volumes on murder mysteries, police thrillers, and supernatural monsters. His latest creation for the Black Lizard line of Vintage Crime volumes manages to be all three of those at once, thanks to the apparently undying fascination of its subject, Jack the Ripper. Londoners of a century ago might not have been surprised to be told that even 100 years later, books would still be written about the mysterious killer who stalked the streets of the Whitechapel neighborhood in 1888 – after all, the Ripper made screaming headlines all throughout the Western world for months on end. But readers in the 21st century are within their rights to pause and marvel at the fact that Jack the Ripper still commands popular attention.
After all, his crimes – the murders of at least five women over the span of a few months in a crowded urban area without getting caught – seem fairly tame when compared to the horrors the intervening century has seen in abundance. Knifemen, axemen, gunmen – they appear in the morning news virtually every day, and although it’s shameful to admit, it’s nevertheless true: if we read in those stories that the final body-count is five instead of 15 or 50 or 500, we breathe a sigh of relief. In 2016, a Jack the Ripper autumn would constitute not a spasm of violence but a temporary reprieve from violence.
And yet Penzler is undeniably right to cite the “frisson of terror evoked my his name,” and the fascination too shows no sign of abating. Movies, TV documentaries, novels, graphic novels, the inevitable manga, and innumerable online videos attest to the semi-mythic status of the Ripper murders, and The Big Book of Jack the Ripper has been crafted to address as many aspects of those murders as can be crammed into one oversized double-columned production.
Penzler has been clever enough to construct his enormous anthology so that its constituent sections reflect the human approach to all things: first we report, then we recapitulate, and then we mythologize (it’s only in the 21st century, with the advent of Internet social media, that all three things began happening simultaneously). The first and shortest section of The Big Book of Jack the Ripper is called “The True Story” and includes an invaluable collection of original documents: court records, depositions, witness statements. The second section is “Mystery, Crime, Suspense – Stories” – eighteen short stories more or less closely echoing the Ripper events in fictional recastings, including some originally commissioned for this anthology by such crowd-pleasers as Jeffery Deaver and Anne Perry. And the final sections of the book – “Red Jack: An Inspiration” and “Saucy Jack: Timeless” – features fantasias on the general theme of the Whitechapel murders, fantasias relocating Jack and his victims in the present day, in the future, and in alternate realities in which all the givens of the case are up for grabs.
This editor is an old, practiced hand at picking these kinds of stories; his anthologies are always masterworks of combining old favorites with carefully chosen new surprises. There are classics here, like Ellery Queen’s “A Study in Terror” or Robert Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” or Harlan Ellison’s “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World,” stories that have appeared in many earlier anthologies and will doubtless go on doing so in such anthologies. Each reader will find their own highlights, reworkings like Boris Akunin’s somberly playful “The Decorator” or “The Adventure of the Grinder’s Whistle” by the great Howard Waldrop, or the hyperkinetic “An Awareness of Angels” by Karl Edward Wagner. Most Jack the Ripper anthologies would consider it a fine day’s work to provide such a wide selection of Whitechapel fantasies and then wrap things up with Permissions & Acknowledgments.
The real payoff of Penzler’s book is its opening section, “The True Story,” and the main reason is clear: the raw events of the true story are more bizarre, more sordid, and more horrifying than any concoction a writer could dream up.
This stays true even when we confine our attentions to the “canonical” five Ripper victims, so dubbed by the professional students of the case (who’ve dubbed themselves, to the eternal envy of lepidopterists and numismatists everywhere, Ripperologists) to differentiate them from the other random murders that filled the stews of London’s East End in 1888. The first of these five victims was 43-year-old alcoholic prostitute Mary Ann Nichols, whose body was discovered in the early morning hour of the 31st of August with her throat slit and her lower abdomen sliced and torn. The next victim, 47-year-old prostitute Annie Chapman, was discovered dead a week later on September 8, her abdomen torn completely open and her uterus missing – or, as we read in the “True Story” section, as recounted in a doctor’s evidentiary statement in The Lancet:
The abdomen had been entirely laid open and the intestines severed from their mesenteric attachments which had been lifted out and placed on the shoulder of the corpse; whilst from the pelvis, the uterus and its appendages with the upper portion of the vagina and the posterior two thirds of the bladder had been entirely removed. Obviously the work was that of an expert – or one, at least, who had such knowledge of anatomical or pathological examinations as to be enabled to secure the pelvic organs with one sweep of the knife.
Next, on the 30th of September, came what Ripperologists refer to as a double event: the body of Elizabeth Stride was discovered at one in the morning, her carotid artery neatly severed but her body otherwise untouched. Less than an hour later (a short enough interval to give rise to speculation that the killer had been interrupted right after he killed Stride but before he could despoil her), the body of Catherine Eddowes was found, the throat slit, the abdomen opened, and the left kidney and part of the uterus removed. In even these four cases, it’s possible to discern a pattern: a killer steadily gaining confidence, displaying greater certainty in ransacking the bodies of his victims. And in hindsight it’s possible to think that if the killer was angry over being interrupted before he could savage the body of Elizabeth Stride, he might seek, after that night, to insure more privacy for his actions.
Such a prediction would have been grotesquely born out by the last of the five canonical murders: on November 9, in the little room where she lived, the body of Mary Kelly was discovered and photographed, and here we see the kind of shambles the Ripper would create if he had all the time and privacy he wanted. Even after a century, the testimony given by police surgeon Doctor Bond has the power to shock:
The viscera were found in various parts viz: the uterus & Kidneys with one breast under the head, the other breast by the Rt foot, the Liver between the feet, the intestines by the right side & the spleen by the left side of the body. The flaps removed from the abdomen and things were on a table.
The bed clothing at the right corner was saturated with blood, & on the floor beneath was a pool of blood covering about 2 feet square. The wall by the right side of the bed & in a line with the neck was marked blood which had struck it in a number of separate splashes.
Police reports glumly announced, “No further arrests have been made in connection with the Whitechapel murder, and the police have discovered no clues to throw any light on the mystery,” and long before Mary Kelly was hacked to pieces, a now-infamous letter had been sent to the Central News Agency, a letter full of taunts and ending:
How can they catch me now. I love my work and want to start again. You will soon hear of me with my funny little games. I saved some of the proper red stuff in a ginger beer bottle over the last job to write with but it went thick like glue and I cant use it. Red ink is fit enough I hope ha. ha.
Yours truly Jack the Ripper
The case became a grisly sensation as many garish elements combined. As pointed out by David Abrahamsen (an expert witness at criminal trials ranging from Leopold and Loeb to the Son of Sam) points out in his 1992 essay “Victims in the Night,” one of these elements was the lowly social status of the victims:
The horror and sadness of the Jack the Ripper murders are intensified when we consider the degraded lives of the victims. Scorned by society, these women were defenseless, alienated, and dispossessed. Their lives were narrowly limited to the goal of getting four pence from a client to buy a shot of gin or a glass of beer, or to rent a bed for the night in a common lodging house.
And as thriller writer Stephen Hunter writes in “Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick” (original to this collection), another key element was the seemingly supernatural comings and goings of the killer:
The fulcrum upon which all of this consequence tipped is often overlooked. It was Marcus Aurelius’s and Hannibal Lector’s first principle. It was the simple fact that Jack killed quickly and efficiently and silently, a matter, really, of seconds. He never missed a stroke. He never faltered. And afterward – clearly a part of the same attribute of efficiency – he vanished without a trace. Though his murders took place hard by population concentrations (on residential streets, in the courtyard of a club just after the full blaze of quorum, in a residential square patrolled from two directions every few minutes by bobbies), he got away clean each time.
“Motive,” writes Peter Underwood in his magisterial essay “Who Was Jack the Ripper?” from 1987, “apart from insanity – which may be a reason but is hardly a motive – has always been the difficulty in deciding who was Jack the Ripper.” And certainly there’s never been a Ripperologist who hasn’t tried to build a case for the identity of Jack the Ripper based on the canonical five murders and, usually, a handful of other murders needed by each writer to make his case. Adding the nonfiction section of Penzler’s book to the fiction sections, readers can find in these pages dozens of potential suspects, ranging from violent sexual psychotic Montague John Druitt to the painter Walter Sickert to Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor.
But there was no capture, no confession, and so nothing of what the modern age refers to as closure. Instead, the original sin in the annals of modern mass murder remains unsolved, open to any and all speculation, from theories implicating a deranged midwife, a conniving defrocked priest, and a bloodthirsty alien. In this splendid anthology, Otto Penzler gives his readers an opening brace of hard facts – and then flings the doors of speculation wide open.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.