I went through a period of my life when I was fascinated with the Jack the Ripper murders of the 1880s. In my early teens, I got hooked on Sherlock Holmes. I read all 4 novels and 52 short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, then read them again, and then read a few of the various pastiche novels that were coming out in the mid-70’s. And because the Ripper murders occurred at about the same time Sherlock Holmes was practicing in London, I became interested in them as well.
To me, Jack the Ripper was the anti-Holmes. He was real, while Holmes was fictional. The Ripper was evil, while Holmes was good. The Ripper murders were never solved. Holmes, on the other hand, was never without a solution.
And I can’t deny that being a teenage boy who loved monsters and horror movies, the tale of a creepy killer prowling the fog-bound streets of London, slicing prostitutes to pieces and then sneaking away in the night, was like candy. I read my share of Ripper books – all non-fiction – during that time as well. A few of them are even still on my shelves, like The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rumbelow – which includes lots of photos taken at the time, including a very disturbing full-body shot of Mary Kelly, the last and most completely dismembered Ripper victim.
Jack the Ripper seems not to have made that much of an impact in fiction, however. Maybe because the actual murders were so grisly… maybe because the case was never firmly or officially solved… I don’t know. There was, famously, Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Lodger, a creepy take on the Ripper case. And although kind of off course, I have a special fondness for Time After Time, the 1979 Nicholas Meyer film where Jack the Ripper steals H.G. Well’s Time Machine and travels forward to 1979… where, he discovers, he fits right in.
But here’s a new novel that delivers a great new take on Jack the Ripper, Nicholas Nicastro’s The Passion of the Ripper. Right from the very first page, I knew it was going to be good. Here’s the opening paragraph, which to me perfectly sets the tone and scene: London. 1888. The Whitechapel district…
The guts of London are laid out as if on a surgeon’s table. The narrow streets surge with pedestrians, tramps, carters and children flitting on mud-flecked lets – denizens of the great coal-gray smudgery piss-pot. Slip down through the smog, over hovels with garbage strewn across tar-papered roofs, down to the locals at their windows. Marionette arms test stiff laundry wings. The sound wafts up, the snap of umber linen on the wet, but no on rises above the cornices.
The first part of the book – approximately 3/4 of the total – covers the Ripper murders. And the murderer himself. Because this is no whodunnit. We know, quite early on, exactly who the Ripper is. The twist here, however, is that we get inside the Ripper’s head. We visit his past, his upbringing, his family, his training… what led him to become the heartless murderer that reaches out across history? For this is a take on the Ripper that speaks to the Hannibal Lector generation, those of us fascinated with profiling our serial killers. The Passion of the Ripper is a psychological take on Jack the Ripper, one that is unlike any I’ve encountered before.
And although I’m certainly no Ripperologist – merely someone who’s familiar with the murders and the setting – this novel reads and feels as if everything is rooted in fact. All the details are correct. The chronology is spot-on. The victims are rendered true to life. Even the Ripper here is based on an actual real-life suspect, a man whom the investigating officer became convinced years later was, in fact, the actual murderer.
The character of the Ripper here is so good, that I found myself getting a bit bored with the prattlings of Mary Kelley, and wishing we’d get back to the Ripper. Perhaps that’s why I felt the strongest part of the book is the last part – Part 2, the final quarter or so of the book.
In Part 2, we see what became of the Ripper in the years after the murders. And, in a great showcase of thriller writing, a satisfying ending is delivered. One that leaves the reader nodding and smiling, secure that justice was served in the end. An ending that, as it turns out, threads the needle between fact and fiction almost perfectly.
Maybe Jack the Ripper got his just reward after all? By the end of The Passion of the Ripper, you might think so.
This is a short but powerful novel, a perfect read for a few hours during this hot summer. I highly recommend it.
And if you have a Kindle, it’s a marvelous bargain at just $4.99. The Kindle version is well-formatted, with bold text done correctly throughout, and both a forward and afterward by the author. It lacks an active table of contents – but I suspect from the structure of the book itself that the printed version might not have one either.
Finally, I should point out that in all fairness, I’m acquainted with the author. However, as Nick well knows, if I don’t like something that one of my friends has created, I usually just keep my mouth shut about it. That is definitely not the case here. I’ll be recommending The Passion of the Ripper to anyone who’s looking for a great book to read – because that is exactly what this is.
And since Nick is a friend, I have to end this by saying that if you do end up reading and enjoying this book, you should definitely check out his other historical novels, which you can find at his website NicastroBooks (http://www.nicastrobooks.com/novels.htm).
It’s a hot summer out there, folks. You can help save the planet and your sanity by reading as much as possible during it.