Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Dickens Mystery – and Jack the Ripper

More than a century after the passing of the Victorian era, we still find ourselves fascinated with the period and the people who were the Victorians. In literary culture, no one represented the age like Charles Dickens did. In popular or mass culture, no event captured the interest of the Victorians themselves and generations to follow like that of Jack the Ripper.

Two recent publications give us windows into the period and, by extension, to our own times.

Dickens is known for his novels, but he was also a magazine publisher and often would write the contents of a particular issue himself. In 1859, he wrote and published what can only be called a detective story, Hunted Down. The story is set with the life insurance industry.

Mr. Sampson, a manager with the Life Assurance Company, observes a visitor to the office one day, one Julius Slinkton (you have to love the names Dickens came up with for his characters, especially the villains). Slinkton is seeking forms for a life insurance policy for a friend and business acquaintance, having promised the man’s mother and sister that he would make sure their son and brother obtained life insurance. Mr. Sampson, even while not speaking directly with Slinkton, takes an instant dislike to the man.

Soon he learns that one of Slinkton’s wards, a niece, died after a lingering illness. He still has legal responsibility for her sister, who also seems to be ailing. From there, the game’s afoot.

Hunted Down has a curiously contemporary feel to it, and it’s fascinating that Dickens wrote what is a detective story (he was good friends with mystery writer Wilkie Collins). And it’s an entertaining story.

And then, there’s the Ripper.

Alexander Kennedy is the author of several short biographies on such famous political, cultural, and scientific figures as Albert Einstein, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Walt Disney and Richard Nixon, among others. In Jack the Ripper: A Life of Crime – The True Story of Jack the Ripper, he tackles a different subject entirely.

There have been worse serial killers, but few have the fascination of Jack the Ripper. For about three months in 1888, the man dubbed the Ripper killed five women in London’s east side, particularly the slum area known as Whitechapel. Four of the five victims were prostitutes; one was not, but may have been trying to get an exclusive story as to the Ripper’s identity.

The account contains little new information; what it does is concisely summarize what actually happened, the various paths of the police investigations, the social context for the crimes, what is known about each of the victims, the origins of criminal profiling, and who the prime suspects were. And suspects continue to be fingered – even during the last 20 to 30 years, a grandson of Queen Victoria and author Lewis Carroll have been added to the list of possibilities (yes, the list includes some farfetched names).

Jack the Ripper is a quick, succinct read, a good introduction to the story of five crimes that still fascinates today.

Top photograph: Dorset Street in Whitechapel, late 19th century. The fifth victim of Jack the Ripper had a room just off this street.

No comments: