on 1 October 2003
This is a scary book. The picture that emerges is one of an obsessive, egotistical and charmless individual, ruthless and single-minded in pursuit of the prey, allowing nothing and nobody to stand in the way of the target. But enough about Patricia Cornwell, what do we learn about the identity of possibly the world's most famous unsolved serial murderer?
The answer is, not a great deal at all. Ms Cornwell's obsessive approach means that from start to finish she assumes that we are content to take her word for it that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. There is no evidence that she is remotely interested in considering seriously other candidates, or in testing her own assumptions. Her own approach is rambling and digressive -- does it really help us to know how modern day forensics in Virginia would have handled the case? -- and her tone on occasions is uncomfortably close to the melodramatic. Her vision of nineteenth century London owes more to a lurid imagination than a serious consideration of the culture and the milieu; so much so that at times I thought that I was reading the National Enquirer.
Does Cornwell actually come up with anything new in the way of evidence? Possibly, but nothing that Scarpetta would have felt would stand up in a court of law. So letters by Sickert and some of those written by the Ripper have the same watermark. Interesting in itself possibly, but Cornwell makes no attempt to demonstrate that the Ripper letters in question were actually the work of the murderer. She herself points out that many of the letters to survive are likely to be fakes, so would not a plausible hypothesis be that the playful Sickert, with his contempt for the police, actually wrote letters purporting to come from the Ripper? It wouldn't be the first time that someone pretended to be a mass murderer. The investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper was fatally compromised by such a hoax.
End result? Another example of Ms Cornwell's ability to write fiction, but poor fiction it is too. I learned less than I wanted about Jack the Ripper, and more than I needed to know about Ms Cornwell.
Oh dear. If you are looking for a well-written, well-argued theory regarding who Jack the Ripper was, then you have come to the wrong place. Patricia Cornwell's book is so fraught with inaccuracies and assumptions that it wouldn't be taken seriously in a school classroom, let alone the academic community.
Cornwell's belief that Walter Sickert, a celebrated artist, was Jack the Ripper is based on "evidence" such as the facts that his paintings contained blurred images of women who looked similar to the Ripper victims; that he had a disfigured penis (proven untrue) which made him hate women; and that mitochondrial DNA found on some of the infamous "Ripper" letters can be traced back to him. This last "fact" is especially laughable seeing as the DNA found was 110 years old and unreliable to the point that millions of people living in Britain in the 1880s could have been a match. Furthermore, the "Ripper" letters are now widely believed to have been hoaxes, meaning that any flimsy evidence they provide does most likely not point to the true Ripper.
What really angers me about this book though is that it is such a lazy, inaccurate and offensive piece of research. For some reason Cornwell appears to have made up her mind as to who Jack the Ripper was before undertaking any proper investigative work, and instead of neutrally gathering evidence prior to fingering a suspect, she has decided to finger Sickert beforehand and frame flimsy "proof" around her assumption in order to ascertain his guilt. But the worst aspect of this work is that it attempts to viciously tarnish the otherwise good name of a celebrated artist. He may have been an oddball, but given the evidence, Walter Sickert was no serial killer. To try and blacken the reputation of a clearly innocent man is unforgivable.
Cornwell has on record defended her work by claiming that were she a man, or a Brit, her theory would have been widely accepted. Says it all, really. Avoid.
One of the most insidious phrases in the English language is: "It's obvious that..." Nasty little phrase. It's usually used to cover weak logic, but it convinces people because of the implication that whoever says it is more knowledgeable than the listener.
So imagine an entire book based on that phrase.
Unfortunately, "Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed" is one such book. Bestselling mystery writer Patricia Cornwell tried her hand at unravelling the century-old mystery of who Jack the Ripper REALLY was. Too bad her book is a steaming pile of... well, you get the idea.
In her investigations, Cornwell primarily focused on Walter Richard Sickert, a British impressionist, actor, and pal of Oscar Wilde. While Sickert was open about his interest in the serial killings, Cornwell delves into the bizarre to reveal what she clearly sees as irrefutable proof of his double identity. Makes you wonder what the poor guy did to tick her off.
Perhaps the problem is Cornwell's fiction -- her imagination is way too active. She seems to be treating the Jack the Ripper case not as a true event with hard facts, but as something that can be spun into a semi-fictional narrative, with clues that no jury would vote for. It would make for a good detective novel, but not a serious cold case investigation.
Watermarks, coincidental poses, perceived signs in his paintings, hoax letters and mitochondrial DNA are all touched on, but Cornwell never actually produces any hard evidence -- in other words, evidence that would make a jury sit up and listen. At best, the evidence is circumstantial. For example, Ms. Cornwell has no actual proof that any of the letters that were tested were even from Jack the Ripper, or that the mitochondrial DNA was from Sickert. However, this doesn't stop her from asserting that both are the case.
And her leaps of logic are almost impossible to swallow, unless you have a festering hatred for Sickert. For example, his apparent fascination with the crime makes him clearly guilty in Cornwell's book, despite the fact that many others -- also presumably innocent -- were similarly fascinated by the crime. The big difference is that we know of Sickert, whereas we do not know of Robbie the night porter.
Cornwell also tends to damn without reason, exhibiting an almost shocking smugness. Sickert is proclaimed a cunning "psychopath," and her disdain for certain parts of London is obvious. Worst of all is Cornwell portraying the cops of the time as inept losers who could not find their own backsides with a map. The "dumb cops, smart li'l me" tactic works in fiction, but it is absurd in the real world.
And finally, what did Sickert do to earn Cornwell's wrath? In her eyes, he is a cunning psycho, a woman-hater, a eunuch, a "slob," a master of disguise, a predator, and a guy who was obviously insane because he liked to take nighttime walks. Every small facet of his personality is twisted into a sign of predatory madness. If liking nighttime walks shows that you're a deranged killer, then chain me up.
While Patricia Cornwell -- who destroyed at least one Sickert painting in her quest -- is a passable fiction writer, her real-life investigations are nothing short of demented. "Case Closed"? I think not.
on 23 August 2005
I'm just glad that I only borrowed this from the library! As other readers have noted this book is not put together in any coherent fashion. Part of my job for the last 18 years has been in putting together cases for the prosecution. Sometimes those have to be based on circumstantial evidence but this is paper thin. The case she presents far from being closed, wouldn't even justify the police interviewing Mr Sickert! If he were alive I can't begin to estimate the amount of libel damages she'd be paying out! It's all very well for her to come up with far-fetched motives etc in her fictional detective stories - I really hope no-one believes they're true to life - but here she purports to be writing a history book -and the rules I'm afraid are different. I would not like to be the university student putting this forward as a thesis.
on 5 January 2009
If proof were needed that Amazon needs to introduce a zero star rating, this, folks, is it. This book is utterly uninformed, badly constructed and littered with declarations of personal (often unsupported) belief, rather than with facts.
The prime arguments it contains are all patently incorrect: Sickert had an operation on his penis - not true. The operation (actually to his anus) traumatised him - not true. It instilled in him a hatred of women, a result of a botched operation that left him impotent - not true. His works show hints of violence towards women and clues to his crimes - subjective, but almost certainly not true. He wrote (at least some of) the Ripper letters - widely discredited, especially by Sickert experts. His DNA matches that found on some Ripper letters - not true (Sickert was cremated and no DNA traces remain; even if the vague results drawn of 110-year-old letters and paintings constitute evidence, they suggest similar biological traces, which 1 to 10 percent of the population shares.... He killed again well after 1888 - so totally unfounded it beggars belief. He could well have been in Whitechapel at the time - in fact, he spent most of the period in Northern France. I could go on... but I think we're starting to get the idea. It's all so incredibly inept.
Walter Sickert, from all the sources left behind of his life and friendships, was not a violent or especially angry man. He was selfish and admittedly a little weird, but that does not a Ripper suspect make. In total, Cornwell's impression of a psychotic villain who managed to conceal his homicidal tendencies until his death in 1942 to every one of his friends, relatives, artistic acquaintances etc. totally fails to convince.
This is not history. It's not even a proper conspiracy theory. It's just total tat.
on 7 January 2008
The blurb on the back says it all. Herein lies the "hard evidence that the perpetrator of the Whitechapel murders was the world famous artist, Walter Sickert". You can understand my disappointment, then, when having read three-hundred pages of the book, none of this "evidence" had yet emerged. I hoped that Cornwell was reserving the smoking gun for some kind of spectacular and persuasive denouement. But alas, there wasn't so much a dramatic conclusion as a kind of dull thud.
This book is Cornwell's greatest work of fiction to date. The problem lies in the patent fact that she has decided on the killer's identity before undertaking her research, when surely she should have gathered evidence first upon which to draw conclusions. The result is a morally objectionable piece of posthumous libel that is so weakly argued it is a wonder it was ever published. Indeed, had anyone else concocted such a string of lame propositions I doubt it would have sold a single copy. But when you're a bestselling novelist like Patricia Cornwell, you don't have to worry about facts, really. Evidently she has spent so much time and money trying to prove that Sickert was Jack the Ripper, that a lack of evidence isn't going to deter her from publishing this book and recouping her losses.
Cornwell herself admits that her forensic investigations have yielded precious little in the way of evidence. She has only retained a partial DNA sequence of Sickert himself, and even that is of dubious authenticity. That this could potentially match the full sequence uncovered from a stamp on a letter to one Dr Thomas Openshaw proves nothing at all. As Cornwell admits, we would need a clean and complete DNA sequence from Sickert to verify such a match. And even if it could be proved that Sickert wrote a number of the Ripper letters, all this would suggest is that Sickert was writing hoax letters to the police, like the hundreds of others who did so at this time.
If you do have the patience to wade through this quagmire of a book, it will soon become clear that Cornwell's argument rests solely on the fact that Sickert painted some sinister and violent pictures, many of which depicted east end prostitutes. Of course, one might just as well say that Cornwell is probably a serial killer on the basis of her own novels.
Cornwell's decision to publish this book raises disturbing questions. As a person of such intelligence and talent, she cannot seriously believe that Sickert is Jack the Ripper on the basis of the "evidence" she proffers. This is, therefore, a thoroughly unethical piece of work. Sickert wasn't the Ripper, and Cornwell knows it. If I were to give her the benefit of the doubt I would suggest that she may be suffering from some kind of delusion. Certainly, there is a creepy obsessive quality to her writing that I find troubling. Not content to malign Sickert by claiming that he was Jack the Ripper, she goes on to attribute to him just about every other murder committed in the country during this period. It reaches the realms of the plain bizarre. This book needed a good editor. A good editor might have suggested that Cornwell take a holiday and calm down.
On the up-side, Cornwell's outlandish and unsubstantiated conclusions do produce the occasional laugh-out-loud moment, which makes for entertaining reading. Her lack of knowledge on the subject of the Ripper killings, however, is just rather infuriating. Worse still, all of her "evidence" is based on the presumption that the vast majority of the Ripper letters to the police are authentic, and that they were all written by Sickert. She goes to great lengths to prove how Sickert might have posted letters with the same date from opposite ends of the country, and in utterly dissimilar handwriting, in order to confuse the police. Wouldn't a much more simple explanation be that, like most of the so-called Ripper letters, these were hoaxes written by different people?
I cannot emphasise this enough. Cornwell has failed to provide a single scrap of evidence against Sickert in this entire book. I would strongly advise against either buying or reading it. Do not waste your time and money. Leave that to the likes of Cornwell.
on 15 February 2004
I was hoping this to be a well-written account of Patricia Cornwell's own quest to prove that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. But there's very little of that, and very little of the hard scientific evidence that Cornwell's millions are supposed to pay for. Instead assumption is piled on assumption--phrases like "could have been" or "might possibly" appear on every page. Cornwell seems fonder of a kind of associative innuendo than the evidence provided by her highly-paid team. Sometimes this reaches bizarre heights: one victim spoke Swedish--a language similar to Danish--Sickert's father was Danish! One of the Ripper latters compares a cut throat to a necklace--Sickert painted women wearing necklaces! My favourite concerns a murder where the assailant was described as being a man in uniform. Cornwell explains that Sickert loved uniforms, even appearing as a French soldier in a production of Henry V. The image he image this conjures--of a crazed Sickert stalking the East End in chain mail is just too hilarious.
One of the book's other faults is that it is very heavily padded. There a lengthy disquitions on Victorian life, even a couple of pages on the Elephant Man. The murders are described in unnecessary, almost loving detail, together with long and pointless digressions about what a modern forensic lab might have been able to do with the evidence. There are also a couple of disturbing and gratuitous asides about necrophilia which make me seriously wonder about how Ms Cornwell's mind works. To sum up, this book offers very little to anyone interested in either SIckert or the Ripper murders, but it's a fine study in monomania and self-delusion.
on 3 December 2005
It's a good Job Walter Sickert isn't alive today, Patsy firstly destroys his paintings, then calls him a serial killer without one shred of evidence. I think Cornwell would also find herself up in court for slander and false accusations.
This book is a botch job. She admits she knew nothing about the ripper murders until she was in London a few years ago. There she spoke to someone (who was obviously equaly as clueless) who mentioned Sickert as a suspect. Cornwell then went away and concocted a story to fit him up as Jack the ripper.
And that's all there is to it, it's factual writing of the worst possible kind. She even makes things up as she goes along. Art experts agree that Sickert was in France at the times of the murders, and this fact alone makes this theory utter nonsense. Unless, amongst other things attributed to him by Cornwell, he invented the jet plane in 1888 to make it back to London. If you're looking for a book to explain the Jack the Ripper mystery look elsewhere, Avoid this like the plague.
on 10 February 2004
I've been fascinated by the case of Jack the Ripper since I was eight years old. (No, I wasn't particularly morbid, I got into it via a Sherlock Holmes fascination). I've read every Jack the Ripper book I could get my hands on, and I've enjoyed every single one of them.
With the exception of this one.
This is a book on my favourite subject that I had to struggle not to put down within the first two chapters. I'm a very quick reader, and this has taken me weeks to read, because I kept putting it down in disgust. Patricia Cornwell came into this book with a theory - based on nothing - and has tried to make the facts fit the case, and ignored any facts that do not. For any - read most - of the facts that don't agree with her theory, the usual reply is 'if the witness was telling the truth'. Her entire hypothesis is based on 'maybe' and 'if' and 'perhaps' which, for the remainder of the novel, are then treated as fact. It's also badly written, deliberately confusing the reader by switching lines of thought so rapidly.
The most irritating thing about it though, is Cornwells absolute certainty that she is correct. For her, this seems to be all the proof that was needed. To the point where, according to the bibliography, she has ignored all the Jack The Ripper books gone before, in order to start completely fresh. This means that the theory has been gone over before, and has been discounted, and she hasn't bothered to check.
Ignore this shoddily written book, and go and read either Alan Moore's wonderful graphic novel 'From Hell', or Philip Sugdens equally good non fiction book 'The Complete Jack The Ripper'. You will find far more enjoyment and education from either of these books, than from this vanity exercise from Patricia Cornwell.
on 18 February 2004
I have just finished reading this book and feel that not only would I like a refund of the purchase price but also the last week of my life back. 483 printed pages comprising: 31 pages of factual evidence (appendix & index), a four page acknowledgement to "her team" and 448 pages of unecessary padding and froth. As an investigative novel it failed on all levels