Wanna read a bad book? Borrow a copy of Patricia Cornwell’s Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed.
I like Cornwell enough to have read all (?) of her Scarpetta series even though I’ve been disappointed by each of them; often they have a good set-up but resolve the situation by the literary equivalent of running people over with trucks. Portrait of a Killer, though, pretty much just stinks.
In it, she “solves” the mystery of the Ripper murders. The killer was the artist Walter Sickert. Her evidence isn’t just inconclusive, it’s annoying. And her certainty — “Case Closed” — exhibits a character flaw that makes me feel uncomfortable in her authorial presence.
Her evidence? [SPOILER ALERT]
A few of the hundreds of letters supposedly sent by the Ripper to the press and police came from the same commercial paper mill as some letters from Sickert.
The mitochondrial DNA left on some of the Ripper letters is of the same type as some left on envelopes containing letters from Sickert; Cornwall says that 1% of the population has that particular type of DNA, although I’ve read that experts say that it could be as high as 10%.
Some of Sickert’s artwork portrays violence and murder. Some show a dark circle around women’s necks…although in the one example I’ve seen, it looks a lot like a necklace to me.
Sickert isn’t known to have been elsewhere during the time of the murders.
I’m no historian and I’m not a Ripper buff, so I can’t evaluate the facts she presents. (For that, see the first two links below.) But her methodology worries me. If a letter supposedly by the Ripper is written in a different hand, it’s because Sickert was an artist. If a witness reports seeing a man at the scene who looked different than Sickert, it’s because Sickert was an actor. If Ripper letters use the phrase “Ha ha,” it must be because Sickert studied under Whistler who used to laugh “Ha ha.” (No, I’m not making this up.) If there are misspellings in a letter, it’s because Sickert was taunting the police; if there aren’t, it’s because Sickert was taunting the police.
Worse, the book is badly written all the way down to the sentence level. The constructions are awkward at the “This is the reason that…” level. The paragraphs are redundant. Entire chapters are superfluous. It is not a good book.
Patricia Cornwell and Walter Sickert: A Primer
By Stephen P. Ryder
A substantial book review by Joe Nickell in the Skeptical Inquirer
An account of a lecture Cornwall gave on the topic
ABC News’ puff piece about Diane Sawyer’s interview with Cornwall
Tagged with: misc
Date: December 30th, 2003 dw