truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
[personal profile] truepenny
Q1: More about Jack the Ripper! Who do you think did it?
Q2: Research -- do you plan your approach, or is it more freeform/serendipitous/falling down rabbit holes?
Q3: Are you exclusively reading true crime? If so, what's that been like? If not, what else are you reading?
[each from a different and lovely reader]

So, true story. My comfort reading is Philip Sugden's The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. I cannot explain to you why I find reading about an uncaught Victorian serial killer comforting, but at this point in my life, I've learned not to argue with myself about it.

I'm a horror writer at heart. (I have a secret theory that most authors of f/sf/h have one genre or the other that is their true best beloved, even if they spend a lot of time writing in the other two. And it's not which genre they like best. It's how they approach stories. As I say when explaining the genesis of The Goblin Emperor, "I wanted to write about elves and airships. And then, because this is how my brain works, I thought of the Hindenburg." I'm a horror writer. Q.E.D.) I have always been drawn to the morbid and creepifying. When I was ten, my family went to Europe, and my parents made a deal with me (which, btw, I offer as a suggestion for anyone who wants to help their child engage with an art museum): I could pick out the two or three pieces I liked best, and they would let me buy postcards of them. (This works better--and I don't know if it's museums in Europe or museums in the '80s--when the museum's array of postcards is really damn large. I still play this game with myself in museums, but it's much more rare for me to find a postcard of the piece I fell in love with.) I was partial to crucifixions and martyrdoms, being especially fond of Saint Sebastian; enchanted by the idea of reliquaries and monstrances; fascinated by the car in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand met his death. (I don't know if this worried my parents, but I can see where it might have.) So when my reading habits, which had nearly been pressed to death by my dissertation, began to reassert themselves and leaned towards Nazi Germany, the disaster of the Donner Party, the Battle of Little Bighorn, Jack the Ripper, the Greek River Killer . . . I said, "Okay," and rolled with it.

So I don't read true crime exclusively, but if I'm not reading about murder, I'm probably reading about massacres and other historical catastrophes. I only make myself unhappy if I try to force my reading in more positive and uplifting directions--and I stop reading, which is 100% the opposite of what I want in life. And I find that true crime, while it is depressing and unsettling, full of cruelty and dirty malevolence and the utter, dreary banality of serial killers' solipsistic, narcissistic, empty inner lives, also is full of reminders that human beings can be honest and ardent and altruistic, can walk through this world, the valley of the shadow of death, and meet it with compassion and integrity. For every Green River Killer, there are twenty police detectives who dedicated twenty years to catching him, and good 20th/21st century true crime is as much about the people working to catch the murderer as it is about the murder(s). 19th century true crime (by which I mean true crime written about 19th century murders, because true crime written in the nineteenth century is almost comically dreadful), being much more historiography and historiography about subjects that weren't judged as historically important, is really all about solving two (or maybe three) jigsaw puzzles, all mixed together and left out in the rain, and half the pieces carried off by squirrels. We know precious little about the detectives who tried to catch Jack the Ripper, because most of them were too "ordinary" for their lives to be written down. (The exception is Walter Dew, who wrote his autobiography, I Caught Crippen in 1938, but everything I have ever seen quoted from that has been factually inaccurate to the point of being fiction.) In this arena, I whole-heartedly recommend Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, because she has done the soul-destroying labor of dragging biographical information about several mid-19th century detectives out of the primordial sludge of the primary sources. (I recommend The Suspicions of Mr Whicher whole-heartedly on many other levels as well, for it is an excellent book.)

Where was I?

So, yeah, it's all morbid and awful and some days I wonder what on earth is wrong with me. But whatever it is, it's been that way since I was born. It's the nature of the beast. (My current To Be Read pile(s) includes a book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a book about the Hatfields & McCoys, a book about the influenza epidemic of 1918 . . . I won't list them all because we'd be here all day.)

And it tends to turn out, very slowly and in sometimes very circuitous ways, that all of this reading is research. Mostly, I don't know what it's research for yet (Jack the Ripper, yes; Hatfields & McCoys, yes; Nazis, still no freaking clue), but I have learned to trust the voice that says, You want to do this, whether it's reading about Jack the Ripper or learning to ride a horse.

I mostly don't read deliberately for research, because something got turned around in my head so that the instant I say, "This is research!" my brain turns into a two-year-old refusing its broccoli. (Again, I suspect the process of writing a dissertation is to blame.) On the other hand, I am so exasperated by the lack of books on the Ratcliffe Highway Murders (1 book--2 if you count De Quincey, which you really shouldn't, truly excellent though "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" is, because it's truly excellent bullshit) and the Thames Torso Murderer (2 books) that I can feel the temptation pulling towards doing actual primary research myself. WHICH IS RIDICULOUS, BRAIN, CUT IT OUT.


I think all of the theories about who Jack the Ripper was are nonsense--some are extravagant nonsense, like the Duke of Clarence or James Maybrick or Walter Sickert, and some are more plausible nonsense, like Aaron Kosminski--but all of them, plausible or otherwise, are based on evidence that won't hold up to serious historical or forensic scrutiny. (Eyewitness testimony is fucking useless and the sooner Ripper scholars get that through their heads, the better.) I think Jack the Ripper was an absolutely ordinary East End working man who nobody ever looked at twice. My actual favorite suspect, of the men described as being with one of the murdered women in the hours before her death, is the short, stout, blotchy-faced man with the carroty mustache, seen carrying a pail of beer into Mary Jane Kelly's rented room on the night she was killed. The timing doesn't really work for him to actually be Jack the Ripper, but he's still my favorite, just on the basis of how utterly ordinary and unremarkable he is. That's the kind of guy Jack the Ripper was. Until he got you alone and the mask came off.
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