The murderer and the punctum

The true fan of real crime books must be subject to moments of panic – or so say I, a fan of real crime books subject to moments of panic. Those are irrational, lock the door moments. I am still haunted by a very little moment in Serpentine, Thomas Thompson’s book about Charles Sobhraj, the killer who preyed on tourists on the “hippie road” in Asia during the 70s. The moment occurred, if I remember correctly, when Sobhraj and his pathetic lover were living in Pattaya, a resort town in Thailand. Upstairs from them was a Dutch couple, who’d come down with a mysterious sickness (Sobhraj would befriend people, give them poisoned food or drink, then nurse them through their long sickness until he had seized all of their money, then dispose of them). The lover went up to visit them one day and found them bound and gagged, seated on some chairs. And she decided not to see this, so she simply shut the door. (At the time, she was pretending that her lover’s wealth and the disappearance of various people about them had no connection). Sobhraj by this time apparently had enough of them, and was pondering their murder and disposal, so he'd tied them down so that they couldn't get away. He shortly afterwards killed and burned them – his usual trick. But something about the door opening, the moment of hope that must have flared up their two hearts, and the door closing – well, it strikes me as distinctly panic-making, a moment of such cruelly disappointed rescue that it must have been shattering.

It is tiny scenes like these which, for some reason, are the attraction of real crime books. There is a certain fun in moral vertigo, and it can’t be reasoned out of us.

My favorite of all real crime books – the one that strikes me as the best of the genre – is not In Cold Blood. It is The Reckoning, Charles Nicholl’s expert reconstruction of the murder of Christopher Marlowe. It doesn’t have any lock the door moments – alas, it is difficult even for the high strung to fear Elizabethan assassins in this day and age – but, in compensation, it offers an incredibly intricate puzzle, as Nicholl teases out the workings of Queen Elizabeth’s secret police. Usually I’d rather have the thrill than the detective work – many real crime books, following In Cold Blood, make no bones about who the killer is, and the beauty of the book is in following him or, more rarely, her – but Nicholl combines rare traits for a writer – he is both a kind of scholar of the Renaissance (he’s also written about Raleigh and Thomas Nashe, and has a nice essay on the Cenci) and a hippie travel writer – he was in Thailand for the drugs and such during Sobhraj’s spree years (not that he ‘s ever written about Sobhraj), which gave him the material for Borderlines – the book about the Golden Triangle when it was still golden, when you could still meet people who’d done the opium thing in Thailand right, back in the late 70s - and he traveled in Columbia right before coke became the boring industry it is now, which gave him the material for an even better book, Fruit Palace.

This is by way of urging LI’s readers to check out the review of the latest attempt to finger Jack the Ripper in the LRB.

LI has had occasion to review a Jack the Ripper book – the notoriously stupid book produced by Patricia Cornwell. We reviewed it for the Chicago Sun Times. Contrary to popular belief, book reviewers don’t eagerly look forward to penning negative reviews. Perhaps in the beginning of the sad reviewing career, one salivates to bite the inflated reputation. And, it is true, you get a lot more publicity for snark than for intelligent sympathy. Yet intelligent sympathy is the only real test for the reviewer – I like to think that many of my reviews could not even be labeled positive or negative, as if the only response to a book is to pull out the gradebook. Fuck that.

However, some books call out to the gods above to punish them. And no book called out for thunderbolts more than Cornwall’s galimatias of unsound psychology and unhinged amateur police work. To quote myself:

In 1976, a journalist named Stephen Knight wrote a book claiming that the Jack the Ripper murders, a series of brutal slayings in the Whitechapel area of London in 1888, were the work of a gang set up to protect the reputation of Queen Victorian’s grandson, the Duke of Clarence. The Duke of Clarence, it seems, had contracted marriage with a lowborn Catholic, and the prostitutes who were slain in 1888 were, in one way or another, involved in a vast plan to blackmail the royal family. Knight claimed that the artist, Walter Sickert, later famous as the greatest British impressionist, was the head of the gang that had exterminated Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Liz Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Kelly. Knight’s source for the rumors about Sickert was a man named Joseph Sickert, who claimed to be Walter Sickert’s illegitimate son.

Patricia Cornwall, the creator of fictional forensic detective Kay Scarpetta is also certain -- 100% certain, as she has said in numerous interviews -- that Walter Sickert is responsible for the Whitechapel murders. But you will not read a word about Knight or Joseph Sickert in this book, for Cornwall’s thesis depends, crucially, on her idea that Sickert’s organ of generation was deformed and dysfunctional. In Cornwall’s view, Sickert could not complete sexual congress normally. It is typical of the weirdness of this book that the ferver of Cornwall’s obsession with Sickert’s endownment is matched, in recent history, only by that of the Paula Jones law team’s with President Clinton’s. In the usual real crime book, Cornwall would argue for her hypothesis – which, as she admits, depends on a structure of speculation about some mysterious operations Sickert underwent as a child – by explaining away countering evidence, such as Joseph Sickert claims. There has been enough doubt expressed about Joseph Sickert that this shouldn’t be hard to manage.

But this isn’t your usual real crime book. This is an obsession in search of a justification. In Cornwall’s view, those who doubt Sickert as the murderer are, prima facie, to be doubted themselves. They are either carpers envious of Cornwall’s worldly success, or stooges of the sinister Sickert Trust. When Cornwall’s considerable investment of ego, as well as the six million dollars she spent on her investigation, meets a piece of evidence it doesn’t like, the evidence has as much chance as a Dixie cup has against a battle cruiser. You aren’t going to find it in this book. You aren’t going to find witnesses mentioned in other books, if they clutter Cornwall’s story line. You aren’t going to find suspects mentioned in other books. For Cornwall’s fans, this will surely work. They will end up convinced that Cornwall, like her fictional character, has tracked down her man through observation and the most modern tools of criminology. But for those who are interested in the Jack the Ripper case – Ripperologists, at they call themselves - these omissions have an opposite and highly depressing effect.”

Nicholl’s review is of a new suspect on the scene. Unfortunately, simply going by Nicholl’s representation of the case for Joseph Silver made by Charles van Onselen in The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath – the amateur detectives still have not gotten their man. However, van Onselen’s chase after Silver, whose cv is rich and strange (‘arsonist, bank robber, barber, bigamist, brothel-owner, burglar, confidence trickster, detective’s agent, gangster, horse-trader, hotelier, informer, jewel thief, merchant, pickpocket, pimp, policeman, rapist, restaurateur, safe-cracker, smuggler, sodomist, special agent, spy, storekeeper, trader, thief, widower, wigmaker and white slave trafficker’) makes this exercise in Ripperology at least interesting.

The Jack the Ripper murders are inherently panic-making. This is how Nicholl starts his review:

“They found Mary Jane Kelly lying on her bed, in the dingy room she rented in Miller’s Court, off Dorset Street in Spitalfields. She was about 25 years old, a colleen from County Limerick, ‘possessed of considerable attractions’. Widowed young, she had turned, like thousands of others in late Victorian London, to prostitution. One of her clients had taken her for a spree to Paris, and she had started to call herself Marie Jeanette. She was also nicknamed Ginger. She lay with her head ‘turned on the left cheek’. One arm was across her stomach, the other turned outwards ‘& rested on the mattress’. She was naked and ‘the legs were wide apart, the left thigh at right angles to the trunk’. These are the words of the police doctor summoned to the scene, Thomas Bond. It was the morning of Friday, 9 November 1888, and Kelly had just become – at a conservative estimate – the fifth and final victim of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.

The positioning of the victim’s body is consistent with the other murders, the splayed legs an immediately readable pornographic cliché: the prostitute in a pose of erotic availability. It is one of the Ripper’s ‘signatures’. It introduces a theme of retribution: this was her crime, and this is her punishment. Dr Bond does not venture these opinions, of course. His job was to observe, and to record as succinctly and scientifically as possible what he saw. His report continues: ‘The whole of the surface of the abdomen & thighs was removed & the abdominal cavity emptied of its viscera. The breasts were cut off, the arms mutilated by several jagged wounds, & the face hacked beyond recognition of the features.’ The eviscerated body parts were scattered – or worse, arranged – about her body, ‘viz. the uterus & kidneys with one breast under the head, the other breast by the right foot, the liver between the feet, the intestines by the right side’, and so on. The heart was missing, however: ‘the pericardium was open below & the heart absent.’ It may have been burned in the fireplace, which bore evidence of a ‘fire so large as to melt the spout off the kettle’. More probably it was taken away by the killer. This is another of Jack’s signatures: what is known in the lexicons of Ripperology as the ‘harvesting’ of body parts.”

Which puts one in mind of the ancestor of all real crime writing, De Quincey’s On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts. Perhaps I shouldn't so casually award Nicholls best in this category - but DeQuincey's is an essay, not a book. Ah, a connection is dimly appearing here, between opium and true crime writing – but this is a mere coincidence, a ladder in the stocking of the genre, so to speak. Still, perhaps one needs to understand vertigo as intimately as an opium eater like De Quincey to write a really great real crime piece. His account of the Ratcliffe Highway murders (IT, who has been doing a desultory psychogeography of London places that aren't usually seen (in the spirit of Rachel Whiteread's plaster casts of the insides of objects) lately, should perhaps plan a visit to some of the great murder scenes one of these days – these are, in their way, monuments to modernism too! - although I have no idea if you could even walk around 29 Ratcliffe Highway, now The Highway, Stepney, near King David Lane, viewable by Google Satellite pic here) is still hair raising. John Williams, a sailer, exterminated the inhabitants of two houses – one of them being the Marrs. Timothy Marr was a shopkeeper. He had a “pretty and amiable” wife; he had an eight month old baby; he had a shop boy; and he had a female servant. At around midnight on December 7th, 1811, he called downstairs to the servant to go out and purchase some oysters for the family supper. (I love details like this – what Barthes called the punctum, the unnecessarily specific – for it is in such whirls of details that we explorers in the grotesque get close, oh so close, to the very madly beating heart, the very touch of vertigo, out of which the still voice of capital crime is heard). Lucky woman departs on her errand; unlucky household, no. 29, Ratcliff Highway, is then visited by Mr. Williams. Who, as De Quincey writes, worked as Titian reportedly painted, with his best clothes on.

“Into this perilous region it was that, on a Saturday night in December,
Mr. Williams, whom we suppose to have long since made his coup d'essai,
forced his way through the crowded streets, bound on business. To say, was
to do. And this night he had said to himself secretly, that he would
execute a design which he had already sketched, and which, when finished,
was destined on the following day to strike consternation into 'all that
mighty heart' of London, from centre to circumference. It was afterwards
remembered that he had quitted his lodgings on this dark errand about
eleven o'clock P. M.; not that he meant to begin so soon: but he needed to
reconnoitre. He carried his tools closely buttoned up under his loose
roomy coat. It was in harmony with the general subtlety of his character,
and his polished hatred of brutality, that by universal agreement his
manners were distinguished for exquisite suavity: the tiger's heart was
masked by the most insinuating and snaky refinement. All his acquaintances
afterwards described his dissimulation as so ready and so perfect, that
if, in making his way through the streets, always so crowded on a Saturday
night in neighborhoods so poor, he had accidentally jostled any person, he
would (as they were all satisfied) have stopped to offer the most
gentlemanly apologies: with his devilish heart brooding over the most
hellish of purposes, he would yet have paused to express a benign hope
that the huge mallet, buttoned up under his elegant surtout, with a view
to the little business that awaited him about ninety minutes further on,
had not inflicted any pain on the stranger with whom he had come into
collision. Titian, I believe, but certainly Rubens, and perhaps Vandyke,
made it a rule never to practise his art but in full dress--point ruffles,
bag wig, and diamond-hilted sword; and Mr. Williams, there is reason to
believe, when he went out for a grand compound massacre (in another sense,
one might have applied to it the Oxford phrase of _going out as Grand
Compounder_), always assumed black silk stockings and pumps; nor would he
on any account have degraded his position as an artist by wearing a
morning gown. In his second great performance, it was particularly noticed
and recorded by the one sole trembling man, who under killing agonies of
fear was compelled (as the reader will find) from a secret stand to become
the solitary spectator of his atrocities, that Mr. Williams wore a long
blue frock, of the very finest cloth, and richly lined with silk. Amongst
the anecdotes which circulated about him, it was also said at the time,
that Mr. Williams employed the first of dentists, and also the first of
chiropodists. On no account would he patronize any second-rate skill. And
beyond a doubt, in that perilous little branch of business which was
practised by himself, he might be regarded as the most aristocratic and
fastidious of artists.”

In the event, the night watchman had seen Williams acting suspicious, went in and told Marr, helped him draw down the shutters for the night, and left. After which Willams pounced – the shutters being down meant that he could do his work without being seen from the outside, and the next thing to do was to gain the door before it was locked.
To think was to do:

“… one turn of the key, and the murderer would have been locked out. In,
therefore, he bolted, and by a dexterous movement of his left hand, no doubt, turned the key, without letting Marr perceive this fatal stratagem.
It is really wonderful and most interesting to pursue the successive steps
of this monster, and to notice the absolute certainty with which the
silent hieroglyphics of the case betray to us the whole process and
movements of the bloody drama, not less surely and fully than if we had
been ourselves hidden in Marr's shop, or had looked down from the heavens
of mercy upon this hell-kite, that knew not what mercy meant.”

In this brief passage, De Quincey spills the beans – this is exactly the format and the feeling of real crime stories. We participate as victims without being bloodied, and as gods insofar as not a sparrow falls – or not a fingerprint is left – without us knowing it – the lie at the very center of the genre. We are neither gods nor victims, but some huddled, obsessed thing between, and our interest in these hell-kites, these predators, is not composed entirely of repulsion.

To read about these crimes is one thing – but remember Mary Kelly. Nicholls skips the discovery of her body, but true ripperologists know the story. Discovered the morning of November 9, 1888 at 13 Miller’s Court, by a man named Bowyer who was there to collect rent for a man named McCarthy - tried her door, found it locked - peeped in the curtains and saw her mutilated body – raced to McCarthy, who contacted the police – and then accompanied two inspectors, Beck and Walter Dew, into the small crib that had served as Kelly’s abbatoir. Dew, apparently, was haunted by the scene – McCarthy told newspapers he couldn’t get it out of his mind. The onlookers, the discoverers, the one’s who narrowly escape – those are the ones who slip in and out of real crime books. They interest LI almost as much as the murderers and victims. I have always been fascinated by the accident of being spared.


Anonymous said…
LI, I just went and locked the door. Damn right! It's a bone-chilling cold night in NYC with a howling window-rattling winter wind, but it's another kind of cold gust that had me turning the key.
Dear God, what must have passed through the Dutch couple in the space of that opening and closing of the door, and through the woman walking down the stairs! Hell, it's almost impossible to even read about it without crying out!

And that is such an incredible line by De Quincey - "or had looked down from the heavens
of mercy upon this hell-kite, that knew not what mercy meant" - which exposes, as you point out, the lie at the center of the genre.

Have you seen the recent Zodiac film? It got all kind of rave reviews, but I didn't care for it much. Maybe I missed the punctum moment in the movie, if there is one. But this post does I think shed light on why it might be consecrated as 'movie of the year' for the happy year of 2006.

Anonymous said…
uh, that would be the happy year of 2007. Amid all this joy I do lose track of time, sorry!
roger said…
Amie, funny, I just saw that movie a week ago.

That would have been a great movie IF they had not shown the murders. The obsession of the cartoonist, which was the redeemable thing in the movie, would then have really worked.
roger said…
ps - I was being too enigmatic there. I didn't mean not showing the set up of the murders, but the instance of the murders themselves. The scariest thing in the movie was the woman who accepted a ride with the supposed killer.

By the way, the great american novel about a serial killer, to me, is Stephen Wright's going native - which is a generally brilliant book. I love Stephen Wright.
Anonymous said…
LI, if you thought Zodiac was near great, I will have to see it again, seems I didn't get it in the first viewing.
I'll also have to follow-up the Stephen Wright recommend, don't know that book.

northanger said…
There is a trend in modern writing that has begun to grow on me. Increasingly, the authors of works are willing to put themselves on the line, to state their opinions and to enter realms that would have been taboo even a half century ago. Some of them use this privilege to scream their point, like Robert Coover in Gerald's Party, whose malicious work begins "None of us noticed the body at first…." Some of them say it quietly, in a whisper, like Michael Ondaatje with The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), making the death of the most famous outlaw poetic. Then there's the third group of people, ones who have something so blaring to say that it deafens your ears but remains indelibly printed upon your brain. Stephen Wright is one such writer, and Going Native (1994) is one such book.

hey, Kay Scarpetta's in my top-20 favorite characters list. you know german don't you. how do you say: Oberpfaffenhofen?
roger said…
Amie, I was fantasizing about the movie it could have been - which is not something I approve of in reviewing, but I'm hoping the standards are a little less in commenting! So, no, I don't think Zodiac is near great. My standard for that is simple. Do I remember a film or not? Which is why I'd unabashedly say that, say, the Mirror or Vertigo - in their different ways - are great, but the Zodiac is already merging with many another film in my mind, and will eventually settle into the general swamp of films. Not to be mean- I didn't think it was a bad flick.

North - hey, interesting find re the Wright essay. So few fans out there for Wright, I've never understood that. Not only is going native by far the best serial killer novel ever, but M31: A Family Romance is the best novel ever about UFOS - plus it rather predicts what was going to happen to the Heaven's Gate people. Wright interviewed the leaders of Heaven's gate before he wrote the book. And myself, I feel a bit connected to Heaven's Gate, as my best friend D.'s choir leader was Marshall Applewhite, before he became "Do" - that is, back in his unascended days, when he was on the Houston level.
The strangeness that runs the interstates of America. What can I say? Get along get along get along little doggies/it's youuuuur misfortune and noooone of my own..."
P.M.Lawrence said…
For 16th century murders, try the murder of Darnley - almost as over-egged a cake as that of Rasputin. For an interesting fictional take on Jack the Ripper, try that of Robert Bloch. And here's a thought: "A Study in Scarlet" had already used the idea of dialect differences to focus attention on an American suspect (from his mis-spelling of plough), so people would have been primed to spot the Americanism (archaism rather than neologism, this time) in one of the authenticated Jack the Ripper verses, "Up and down the Goddamned town/The policemen cannot find me".
roger said…
Ah, Mr. Lawrence - I am not sure what you consider worse, Jack the Ripper's crimes - or his americanisms! I know how much you hate those things, for some reason. But Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway can't be all bad.

I should point out that they they have found no conclusive proof that Uncle Sam was even in the East End in 1888. That plug hat with the red, white and blue stripes? The corncob pipe that was found lying in Dorset street? The description of the tall man with the white goatee? There's a perfectly good explanation for all of these things!
P.M.Lawrence said…
You're reading too much into what I wrote (remember what you just posted about abduction?). All I was doing was deliberately muddying the waters. However, the odds are good that US mariners were in the area at the time, what with the docks nearby and all, and what with sailors' shoretime activities.
roger said…
Ah, Mr. Lawrence, I was just teasing.
Praxis said…
If psychogeography of ripper sites is your thang, you could do worse than Stewart Home's 'Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton'. If I remember right, one of the characters is convinced that Henry James was the killer, and quotes extensively from James's diaries, as 'evidence'. Plus Home more or less single-handedly established psychogeography in the UK, as far as I can tell. All good fun stuff.
Ray Davis said…
Is LI fond of Patricia Highsmith? There's a scene in Those Who Walk Away I often have cause to think about, depicting exactly the shock of mortal disregard -- not as Grand Guignol as Sobhraj's opened door, but more pervasively disturbing for its banality.