There are lots of problems with ‘true crime’ writing.
First, so much of it feels as if it’s been written by a sweaty Dennis Franz-alike wearing a dirty vest in a seedy hotel. As if the writers would actually like to be doing the kinds of things they’re writing about, and are writing for people who feel the same. Pornography for repressed psychos, basically, or at least the chronically morbid.
Then there’s the stuff that goes out of its way not to wallow in the gore and physical horror but instead attempts to ‘tell the stories’ of those murdered and of those left behind. Sometimes it has a noble purpose — to ensure that the true weight of the crime is underscored as justice is administered; to keep the story in the news so that the case won’t be closed; or simply re-balancing attention from killer to victim. Too often, though, this also feels like pornography, albeit of a more subtle kind: ‘I can’t imagine what it must be like…’ (But with a shudder that sits somewhere between fear and thrill.)
Still other examples turn the police into unblemished heroes (The Badge); massage them into archetypes (crusading, compassionate) for the sake of a neat narrative. It is about strong men struggling with demons, refusing to give up. This is another kind of fantasy, albeit often a reassuring one.
I’m thinking about all this because I’ll admit I used to be one of those weirdos who is somewhat interested in the Jack the Ripper case. It was something I came to as a teenager via Sherlock Holmes, and I guess Hammer Horror — not the best route, I now realise. At first, I was more interested in Victorian London, and books about Jack the Ripper were merely a useful, easily available vehicle for accounts of, for example, Jewish social clubs in Whitechapel in the 1880s, or the lives of those who slept hanging in rows on ropes for want of a bed.
Later, I began to feel a nagging irritation at the fact the case offered no closure. How could someone kill six women (the number is debated) and get away with it? Surely some papers would turn up, or a DNA test, wouldn’t they? (There is a whole industry devoted to ‘startling new evidence’.) My theory — because one had to have a theory — was that ‘Jack’ would prove to be the most boring, anonymous 20 to 35-year-old living on or near Flower & Dean Street, and definitely not a mad doctor or prince or whatever else.
I can pinpoint the moment when I realised this was not a healthy thing to be interested in — to have as something even vaguely resembling a ‘hobby’, for goodness sake. It was when a friend booked places on a Jack the Ripper tour of the East End one autumn evening during which the guide, with, I thought, evident glee, declared: ‘…and cut her open from vagina to breastbone’. He made the motion with his hand as he said it. The Americans on the tour giggled but I thought, very Englishly, ‘Steady on.’ He was quite the showman, he had a living to make, I understand all that, but it wasn’t right, and it cast the whole business into sharp relief.
I still have a couple of books about the case on my shelf (both long discredited, I gather) which I catch myself dipping into from time to time, but I haven’t bought any more since. I have also read other bits of true crime writing such as David Simon’s Homicide and the Library of America anthology. I listened to the first series of Serial like everyone else on the planet. The fact that true crime podcasts so often include long-winded justifications for their own existence betrays that their creators doubt their own motives: corpses + grief = subscribers.
Some of the true crime writing I’ve encountered, I enjoyed, if that’s the right word, but some gave me that sick feeling. So much of it concentrates on the killing of women, accurately reflecting the sad ways of the world, no doubt, but leaving me queasily asking… Why am I reading this? And why did they write it?
In recent years, driven primarily by determined female historians, thinking around the Ripper case in particular has moved on. It won’t be solved and in talking endlessly about the murderer, and especially in depicting him as a semi-mythical satanic figure akin to Spring-Heeled Jack rather than a sad arsehole, we do the victims a disservice. So, the new thinking goes, let’s look at and talk about them as whole people, who lived long, full lives before they became merely ‘victims’, if we absolutely must continue to dwell on this horrible case. To which end, Hallie Rubenhold is working on a book about the victims of Jack the Ripper due out next year; and Dr Fern Riddell’s Tweet thread on the same subject, from 2013, is here.
If Jack the Ripper destroyed Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Kelly, and got away with it, the best justice we can now hope for is to put them back together with greater completeness and reverence than their humble lives might otherwise have prompted.