Friday, September 2, 2011
Guest Blog - Jack the Theorist by Jon Hartless
On August 31st, 1888, Mary Ann Nichols was killed in Whitechapel. The murder didn’t excite too much attention at the time, but this changed as a further four women were killed and a myth was born; the myth of Jack the Ripper.
I say he’s a myth because, in a sense, Jack the Ripper never existed. He’s a fabrication of society, a midnight ghoul created by rumour, the public, and the press. Obviously someone killed the five women, but there is even some debate about whether they were all murdered by the same hand. What has evolved over time is the legend we know today. Think of the Ripper and most likely you have an image of a foggy street and the silhouette of a man in evening wear, with a top hat and a cape, prowling the streets with a knife in one hand and a Gladstone bag in the other.
I was introduced to the world of the Ripper by picking up The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper, edited by Maxim Jakubowski and Nathan Braund, which presents a series of essays by different ‘ripperologists’ who examine the case, draw conclusions, argue with each other, and insist that their suspect has to be the killer.
This is the biggest criticism that can be levelled at ripperology; it is little more than a game in which the objective is to disregard the facts, condemn any rival theories, and finally identify and promote a suspect as the definitive killer. The ‘winner’ of the game makes money, or gains some notoriety, (or maybe even self-validation), and reality can take a running jump. The truth is almost entirely incidental.
Consider the ‘case’ against the Duke of Clarence. In 1888, Whitechapel was a pit of criminality, desperation, poverty, and neglect – the tinderbox beloved of purple prose, ready to explode. As the murders continued the mood in Whitechapel turned ever uglier, especially against outsiders, Jews and ‘toffs’. Is it at all believable that a member of the royal family could visit Whitechapel and not be noticed by someone? And that doesn’t even take into account the court circulars showing he wasn’t in the area at the time...
It was this which encouraged my novella, Jack the Theorist. It is a work inspired by the theories of the ripperologists rather than the actual crimes. In it, an enthusiastic ripperologist investigates the murders as they happen and deduces ever more elaborate and ridiculous theories as to who is responsible. Many of the ideas were taken from the genuine theories presented in The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper, no matter how delusional (or occasionally sensible) they appear. It was fun writing the story, laughing at the incredulity (or opportunism) of ripperology, and exploring the way in which random events can be stitched together to form a sort of (in)credible tapestry of conjecture, fabrication, and paranoia.
As such, Jack the Ripper truly stands on the threshold of the modern day, with the press lying to the population to whip up sales, cranks crawling out the woodwork to offer up their theories, and the population absorbing the juiciest ideas as fact. The wisest thing we can do, I suppose, is laugh at them...
Jack the Theorist is out now at Vagabondage Press.
Jon Hartless was born in the 1970s and has spent much of his life in the Midlands and Worcestershire. He is the author of three bleakly humorous science fiction books under his own name, and two even bleaker works under the pen name Barnabas Corbin.
Rise of the Steampunk Empire will be published under the Barnabas Corbin name early in 2012.
Please leave a comment on this post in appreciation of the author.