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Atmospheric Fictional Take on London's "Stripper Murders"
on 6 October 2010
This fictional take on the unsolved real-life "Jack the Stripper" murders in London from 1959-64 delve deeply into the era's sordid side. The city is on the cusp of breaking out of the postwar gloom and into the so-called "Swinging Sixties", but meanwhile, someone is killing prostitutes and dumping them in the Thames. The story alternates between two characters: copper Pete (who rises from patrolman to detective inspector over the course of the story) and Stella (who rises from art student to acclaimed fashion designer over the course of the story). The former finds the first body and is later deeply involved in the hunt for the killer, while the latter is tied to the killings through her psychic "gift," which allows her to experience the last minutes of each woman's death.
That's right, for some reason, what could have been a perfectly good gritty noir is marred by an unnecessary dose of the supernatural. Now, I'm not completely opposed to mixing the supernatural and the crime genre (for example, Colin Cotterhill's Laos-set series does it quite well), but here it jars badly. I can only imagine that the author had decided to write about the burgeoning art and music scene of the time, and felt the need to connect that aspect to the murders much more directly than it already was. It's not a good choice, but nor does it wreck the book -- it's more of an irritant.
The story oozes atmosphere, and anyone interest in the cultural history of modern London will probably find it worth reading on those merits (Colin MacInnes' trilogy is clearly a heavy influence). Those with an interest in music of the era will also have fun matching some of the fictional characters to their real-world counterparts (the two I'm pretty certain of are the pioneering producer Joe Meeks and the provocateur Screaming Lord Sutch). On the whole, it's a sleazy world, and as the story progresses, it comes as little surprise that plot elements and characters start to mingle with the Profumo Affair. And if you're familiar with that, then the ultimate destination of the story should come as little surprise.
So, while the book is pretty engaging and full of atmosphere, by the end it starts to feel a bit like a nostalgic synthesis of 50-year old touchstones: the rise of modern art, the birth of British rock-and-roll, subcultures like Teddy Boys, the sleazy West End before it was gentrified, the high-level corruption, the lords and ladies up to their eyeballs in porn and S&M, and soforth. It's all remarkably well-done, but I'm not sure to what extent readers will find it satisfying.
Note: Those interested in the real-life case can find plenty of info about it in various serial killer anthologies, as well as two hard to find books published about a decade after the events: Murder Was My Business by John Du Rose (the autobiography of the cop who led the investigation) and Found Naked and Dead by Brian McConnell.