originally written 22/09/2010
Though the book doesn’t say it, you quickly realize that it was published by some variation of Vanity Press, which carries with it a (somewhat undeserved) stigma. Plus, Ian Porter was unwise enough to say in his author’s blurb that he wrote the leading ski resort guidebook! That hardly lends gravitas to the subject of this novel, Whitechapel in 1888! Whitechapel is slow and clunky to start. As it goes, the plot improves as does the authorial voice and characterization, and it was really quite good during the last two-thirds. However, the book would really have benefited from a good editor. Any editor, in fact, as I suspect the author edited it himself. If not, he should fire the person who edited it!
The subject, of course, is the Ripper murders, and to tell you the truth, after my experience with Ripperology, I’ve still not read anything fictional about it (unless you count From Hell). The book’s stop-and-start attitude toward setting and character at the beginning, to me, signalled where a good editor could have helped. I don’t claim to be an expert, since my prose fiction hasn’t won me any awards recently, but the author’s flirting relationship with Catherine Eddowes and Liz Stride seems inconsistent with his detailed (and overall, believable) portrayal of Mary Kelly. It begs the question: why focus on Kelly? Was she more interesting by dint of being young, by all accounts pretty, whereas the other two were aged and wretched prostitutes barely staying alive? If this comparison wasn’t intended, why include their stories? Presumably the book is to appeal to anyone with a passing knowledge of the subject; if so, the names alone are enough to conjure up all the facts about them.
By contrast, Porter’s main invented characters are quite lively and though their badly punctuated dialogue drives the reader insane, they are appealing and believable creations. Thomas Nash, “Nashey,” is a tough guy from the Rookeries whose main occupation is thievery. He’s a product of his time and place, but he has self-respect and a head on his shoulders. He can also read and has ambitions for the East End—in fact, he takes the unpopular view that the attention drawn to Whitechapel by the murders is actually beneficial. Although the author is (too) quick to point out he based her on a real woman, Sookey Parsons as introduced into the story, and when her backstory eventually comes out in a rather odd and disjointed narrative, seems much less organic.
Nevertheless, I quite took to Sookey and her hopeless naiveté. Her financial and social ruin brought her to earn her keep in the East End where her other middle class counterparts would be “slummers,” and eventually she earns Nashey’s, Mary Kelly’s, and other neighbors’ respect. (One would still expect, however, an army widow who lived in India to have a bit more common sense!) But certainly her lack of common sense makes me identify with her somewhat. What endowed both these characters’ lives with a bit more tension was the future-reader’s knowledge of what was going to happen, and with Nash on the trail of Jack the Ripper and biding his time, it became an exciting adventure, even with a foregone conclusion. The sexual tension between Sookey and Nashey was not overdone, in my opinion, and reached a sensitive conclusion—that rapidly descended to romance-novel calibre, much to my embarrassment as I was reading it on the Tube!
Other passing-memorable invented characteurs include Khan the “lascar,” and Shanks the “wrong ‘un.” A young Lloyd George made a somewhat pointless appearance. The back blurb tells us that the book explores whether the end ever justifies the means, ie, were the Ripper killings and the hysteria they created worth it because of the social change enacted in the East End? There are epigraphs to every chapter to this effect, but I wasn’t sure the book itself made this theme central enough, if indeed it was its intent. In places, it feels like a nonfiction work, with an ironically lecturing authorial voice. Nevertheless, the research has been done and creates a fairly convincing recreation of the time and place.
The Ripper suspect Porter has used is from one of the lower likely tiers, ie not one of those most usually associated and not on the 1888 police force’s suspect list. Porter says the diary discovered that is purported to have been written by this suspect, if genuine, firmly establishes him as the Ripper (I’m keeping the suspect a secret in case you want to be surprised). While I’m not wholly convinced by Porter’s case for this individual, he does tick many of the boxes. For example, the way Porter explains why this suspect writes the “Juwes” message is convincing, as is his treatment of why the last murder was so bloodily performed and different from the others. I think it likely we will never know, but it’s always interesting to me to see new spins on it.