Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Don't let the Ripper go for your throat

kw: book reviews, fictional status uncertain, autobiographies, murders, murderers

The first famous serial killer was Jack the Ripper. He was not the most prolific, with "only" six confirmed kills. He was not the most creative; his murders were hack jobs, followed by crude dissections in five of the six cases. The "surgical precision" often reported relates more to the use of a scalpel or equally sharp instrument rather than to great skill in its use. So why so famous? Mainly because he got away with it.

My wild card choice this season is The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper by James Carnac. In the Dewey Decimal system the book is classified 364.1523, "Murders". But it is really about the murderer. James Carnac claims to be that murderer. We find a brief physical description: 5 ft 7 in, slight, sallow complexion, round face, and longish black hair. And we find either a possible solution to a popular mystery, or a forest of new mysteries.

The volume consists of the following:
  • A map of the Whitechapel area as it was in 1888, with principal locations marked.
  • A preface by Alan Hicken, a museum-keeper into whose hands the typescript came in 2007.
  • An introduction by Paul Begg, the most authoritative author and investigator of Jack the Ripper.
  • The text of the Autobiography in three parts plus an "Explanatory Remarks" and an Epilogue. The Epilogue purports to be a report of a coroner's inquest into the death of James Carnac in a fire.
  • Three Appendices: a detailed analysis of the typescript by Paul Begg, Facsimiles of a few pages of the typescript (everywhere called a manuscript, but it was not handwritten), and a list of the six known victims.
  • "About the Contributors"
  • Index
The typescript, according to Paul Begg, was prepared on three different typewriters. Parts 1 and 2 on one, Part 3 on another, and the Epilogue on a third. His opinion is that Part 3 is the least credible and that the Epilogue is a true wild card, as no other record of the inquest is known.

The Autobiography itself is remarkably well written, and hurries a reader along. Written in a Victorian-era style, and thus wordy, it is nonetheless quite readable. Have you ever noted that writers of that era used more commas and semicolons than one finds today, and that they help a reader track where a long sentence is going?

Carnac, if he existed, claims to be descended from a long line of executioners and official torturers, including the executioner of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Thus a taste for blood and observing death is his heritage. He knows what he is doing is wrong, and only partially self-justifies his actions. He chose victims so degraded—aging and elderly prostitutes—whose lives, in his estimation, had become worthless. I have read autobiographies of several killers, including a couple of professional "hit men" and Monster Cody. These all have a very high self-regard and try to convince the reader that they are really good. If by "good" one means skilled at extracting life from a person, they one must agree. This makes me a trifle suspicious of the veracity of the Autobiography's author. Though he arrogates to himself the right to judge the worth of these women's lives, his self-regard is quite low.

One key fact is brought out in the various apparatuses, and is evident in the writing: that Carnac claims to have killed simply because it was so enjoyable. He was driven to it by an obsession that grew throughout his young life until about the age of thirty, when he killed six times in a span of four months. He reports suffering a catastrophic accident the day after the sixth murder that prevented him from continuing the spree. This principle is supported by more modern research into the psychology of serial killers, who primarily kill for enjoyment.

What do we really know of the typescript behind this book? It was almost certainly written before 1930, passed through a few hands, and came into the possession of Mr. Hicken; he accomplished obtaining the research and publication. If it is genuine, it is valuable history. If it is a hoax, it is nonetheless a valuable historical study by someone who very well knew the Whitechapel area and the circumstances of the murders, and could skillfully get into the mind of a likely perpetrator.

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