Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell

[15 January 2003]

By Steven T. Boltz

Ripped Off

“Singularity is almost invariably a clue. The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the more difficult it is to bring it home.”
— Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Patricia Cornwell has, in the short course of her investigation into the Whitechapel Murders, gone silently and irretrievably mad.

Others have spent years, entire lifetimes, investigating the mystery of Jack the Ripper, each proposing his own theory as to the Ripper’s identity and motive. In the almost one hundred and fifteen years since the murders, Ripperologists have not been able to agree on one suspect. But they all pretty much agree that Cornwell is delusional.

Either that, or she’s too arrogant to admit—after spending upwards of six million dollars on the investigation—the simple, obvious truth: She’s wrong.

And she is wrong. I know I’m going out on a limb, here, but Cornwell’s assertion that Jack the Ripper was, without a doubt, post-Impressionist painter, Walter Sickert, is complete crap. From the fact that mitochondrial DNA testing—the proof on which she’s hanging her hat—is considered no more or less helpful than blood-typing when it comes to narrowing a list of suspects to anything less than a couple of hundred thousand, to her admission that she has no proof that Sickert was actually anywhere near London at the time of the murders (but neither has she any proof against it, so that’s okay), Cornwell’s theory ranks right up there with the Magic Bullet Theory on the “Are You Buying This?” scale.

Her conclusions are way off. But by now, this is common knowledge. You can’t open a newspaper, or flip through a magazine without finding a negative or at least lukewarm review of the book. And after the merciless—and spot-on—caning she received from Caleb Carr in the New York Times, one marvels that she still shows her face in public, much less continues to promote the book.

My initial reaction upon hearing about Cornwell’s audacious claim to have solved the case was one of incredulity. I tried to read the book with an open mind and I’d say, for the most part, I succeeded. But open-mindedness only goes so far in the face of so much outright conjecture:

Pg 25: “Maybe he really was a soldier. Or maybe he was a killer disguised as a soldier. What a brilliant bit of trickery that would have been…”

Pg 34: “For an educated man like Sickert… finding himself spattered and soaked with a prostitute’s blood was likely to have been disgusting…”

Pg 37: “I cannot determine with absolute certainty the weapon that took Martha’s life, but I can speculate…”

Yet for all this open speculation, never does Cornwell hesitate to use the Ripper moniker in place of Sickert’s given name, as when she refers his former wife, Ellen Cobden, as “the daughter of a famous politician and first wife of Jack the Ripper”.

This book represents, not an investigation, but an indictment. Rather than use clues to lead her to the killer, Cornwell, it seems, has singled Sickert out for one reason or another, and then tried to pin the crimes on him.

Her credibility first comes into question as early as page 11, when she states that prior to starting work on this book she knew nothing of Jack the Ripper, including the fact that he killed prostitutes. Where, I ask you, does one have to have been hiding for the sum total of one’s life for that fact to have flown under one’s radar?

After 39 pages, I was so disgusted with Portrait that I was forced to put it down in favor of Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues (which I read pretty much in one sitting—damn, but Dutch is the man!), and picked it up again only once I’d convinced myself it couldn’t possibly have been that wretched, and that I would read it, instead, as a novel, rather than true crime.

But it’s not even good fiction. Cornwell’s theory that Sickert may have dressed as a sailor to perpetrate his first murder smacks of something from a bargain-bin paperback, as does her theory regarding his motivation—a deformed penis from a childhood operation which, again, may have left him scarred or impotent. It’s trite, really. It’s “The Guy In The Hat Killed The Other Guy In The Hat”. It’s murder-by-numbers.

While her theory holds no more water than the Other Leading Brand, her enthusiasm for the subject is as undeniable as it is admirable. And it’s on this level, as a study of Cornwell’s obsession with Sickert, that the book finally approaches readability.

Chapter Two finds Cornwell and her agent walking one evening in New York’s Upper East Side. As they make their way along the noisy, cramped NY streets, Cornwell writes, “I began to imagine some thug trying to grab our briefcases or us. I would chase him and dive for his ankles and knock him to the ground… I’d show him, yes I would. I fantasized about what I would to if some psychopathic piece of garbage came up from behind us in the dark…”

OH MY GOD!! THE WOMAN IS MENTAL!! Is this what the investigation has done to her? Turned her into a paranoid delusional? Given her a Wonder Woman complex? Or maybe this is the frame of mind all New Yorkers walk around in, I don’t know.

Upon return from her manic reverie, Cornwell complains to her agent that she’s feeling miserable, and goes on to say, “I hate this book… All I did was look at his paintings and his life, and one thing led to another…” I felt for her, here. She’s cracking up. The weight of responsibility—“knowing” the identity of one of the most notorious murderers in history—would have to be unbearable. “Every now and then,” she continues, “this small voice asks me, what if you’re wrong? I would never forgive myself for saying such a thing about somebody, and then finding out I’m wrong.”

And there it is.

She’s painted herself into a corner, allowing no margin for error, and it’s driving her mad.

Hence her nearly religious conviction, her “I’m Not Budging On This And All Y’all Can’t Make Me” attitude—though probably not actually stated with any Southern colloquialism.

In an interview with Bruce Wilson (Australia’s Herald Sun), Cornwell seems fixated with talking about the mtDNA tests. “It was difficult to shift Cornwell away from this one subject,” Wilson reports.

Because that’s all she’s got.

Her evidence—a match between mtDNA taken from some of Sickert’s personal correspondence and mtDNA from a few of the famed Jack the Ripper letters—links him only to these letters—not to the murders. And since Ripper experts consider these particular letters to be fakes… Well, you don’t have to be a best-selling author of crime fiction to reach a sensible conclusion. And, apparently, it helps if you’re not.

What Cornwell has managed to do with this book, it seems, is exactly the opposite of what she set out to do—she’s proved beyond a shadow of doubt that Walter Sickert was most definitely not Saucy Jack.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/portrait-of-a-killer/