Who needs style and substance?

Review originally published on LiveJournal in February 2006.

Having been thwarted by the dense prose of classic fantasy, I thought I would distract myself with a little light read. The American Murders of Jack the Ripper might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but my interest in the subject has been on hold rather than dissipated, so my unread volume on the topic was an obvious choice when surveying my bookshelf.

The so-called American Ripper murders all took place in and around New York City, and are strictly non-canonical. My understanding prior to reading this book was that a small group of London police were detailed to New York for an (unrelated) investigation; that at least one authority of the time said later that he believed Jack had fled to the US; and that there was at least one gruesome killing with a Ripper flavour in the New York area. The politically-astute New York authorities always denied a link to the Whitechapel murders, however, and any Jack-style murders outside London are generally viewed as coincidence or copycats.

R. Michael Gordon begs to differ. He argues that there is a clear-cut case to be made for a series of Ripper killings in New York, and attempts to set it out in this book. Unfortunately, he is simply not up to the job. His style tends towards Gothic horror without the good bits, the prose peppered with repetition of the blindingly obvious and unnecessary exclamation marks. He revels in sweeping statements, without providing any references or other evidence of research; it is generally difficult to tell how much is fictional colour; and his logic has more holes in it than my fingerless gloves (and they have more than they’re meant to).

According to Gordon, Jack the Ripper killed 4 women in New York between 1891 and 1892 because there are 4 unsolved murders during this period, which happens to coincide with the dates when one Severin Klosowski moved there from London. Klosowski would later be known as the “Borough Poisoner”, having been convicted of murdering 3 of his “wives” on his return to London in 1893; a case was made as early as 1903 that he was also Jack the Ripper.

Gordon is clearly sold on the Klosowski as Ripper theory (and to give him some credit, Klosowski is a strong suspect), but the New York cases are flimsy to say the least. There is no evidence whatsoever that these killings were committed by a single man – target, motive and method differ from one to the next, and only the first bears any resemblance to the Whitechapel murders of 1888. This first is also the only case in which the (probable) killer was seen – and with his “fair-haired” mustaches, he was unlikely to have been black-haired Pole Klosowski.

I spent most of the book gritting my teeth and persevering through sheer stubbornness. Gordon is one of the “Ripperologists” who chooses to argue that the Ripper was responsible for the deaths of more than the canonical 5 victims, extending his run well into 1891, and only just shies away from attributing the unsolved Torso Murders of the same period to the Ripper as well. He applies similar enthusiasm to the rest of the subject, which is far from reassuring. Some of the details of the Whitechapel killings, used here to show similarities with the New York events or to prove some detail about Klosowski, were factually inaccurate. Most of the conclusions were lazy and questionable.

The problem with most Ripper-related literature is that it is written by fanatics. So much information has been lost over the past 130 years (more so in the case of the New York crimes, for the NYPD burnt all their old case files to create storage space!) that much of what remains is questionable, contested or taken from the popular press. As such, it is easy to discard anything that does not fit your pet theory – witnesses, suspects, victims(!) – as you please.

I’m open-minded on this. I have done a fair amount of reading (and even some related research) on the Ripper in the past year, and I certainly have my views on which (London) killings fit the pattern and which do not. I’m not above considering that a killer develops his style, and may later change it. But I do not have a chosen suspect, although my shortlist of “likely” suspects is fairly limited. As I think I’ve said here before, I do not believe we will ever know. It’s far too late in the day. And yes – the single-minded frothing of the convinced Ripperologist tends to irritate me.

But not half so much as bad prose.

If you’re ever tempted to look into this subject, avoid this book like the plague. Or a shady man with a big knife.