Thursday, July 25, 2013

My ARC entry for July

It's time once again to join Darcy at Art and Sole and review our July book of choice.  This month's book has been languishing so long on my bookshelf without ever being opened, I had to wipe off a layer of dust before I could open it.  For this month, I chose

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed

by Patricia Cornwell
  • ISBN-13: 9780425192733
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/28/2003
  • Edition description: Updated
  • Pages: 387
I would like to begin by stating that I was a scientist long before I was an artist.  And I also admit that I am a far better scientist than I will ever be an artist.  So when I found this book by Patricia Cornwell, I was intrigued.

Although a lover of mysteries, I had never read anything by Cornwell before.  And, unlike most of my British friends who are in this "club," I had never been interested in Jack the Ripper.  At least, not until I read this book.

According to the book jacket, "Patricia Cornwell has produced a book which is as compelling as it is authentic. . . . "  Therein lies the rub.

I used to teach statistics while I attended grad school.  I often began my correlation lecture with the assertion I would rather die from smoking cigarettes than eating carrots.  After all, there are less people who die from smoking cigarettes than there are people who die from eating carrots in their lifetime.  This speaks to the common fallacy that correlation IS NOT causation.  I eat carrots.  I get sick and die.  Therefore, carrots must have caused my death.  If this statement causes concern for you, then you will be equally confused with Cornwell's assertions.  And these assertions are prevalent throughout her 387 page book.

For those of you who, like me, have no (or limited) knowledge of Jack the Ripper, from late August to the first part of November, 1888,

a series of five murders occurred in London's  East End known as Whitechapel.  Each of these murders was accompanied by mutilations, which grew progressively more brutal with each new victim.  The victims, all women, were known prostitutes, or Unfortunates, a term often used by Cornwell.  Somehow, the killer evaded capture and was never brought to justice.  Until Cornwell wrote the book, that is!  And in case you think I meant that last sentence, read on, please!!

Now let's look at the book because all photos are scanned from it.  You know the assumed killer's name by reading the book jacket.

You know that Cornwell has determined beyond a shadow of doubt that the killer is Walter Sickert, an artist.  You know this because she tells you in the book title: case closed!!

From the very beginning, Cornwell asserted that Sickert's artwork revealed he possessed an intimate knowledge of the five Whitechapel murders.  On page 14 of the book she contended that Sickert had a violent, psychopathic mind, which justified her belief that he was Jack the Ripper.  She felt from the very beginning that Sickert was the killer, simply from observing his art.

Since most of us who are in this ARC are artists (or play at being artists), we know the interpretation of any piece of art is highly subjective.  Though Cornwell's endeavor to use Sickert's artwork to incriminate him as Jack the Ripper seemed subjective from the outset, her claims may have been even more skewed. She suggested that, due to facial similarities, and a dark line around her throat, like a deep cut, the female figure in his sketch Venetian Studies, was, in fact, intended to depict the Ripper's first victim, Mary Ann Nichols (page 148), and due to the poor distinction of her facial features, the female character in his painting Putana a Casa was supposed to resemble the Ripper's fourth victim, Catherine Eddowes, who had her nose slashed and her ear removed (pg 294).  She even showed the reader evidence of this in pictures and artwork she either purchased or was allowed to copy.

Possibly the most compelling argument included the above which Cornwell copied at the London Public Record Office.  Although it mentions "art and paper experts,"  there is no mention of Sickert being the Ripper.
In this entry, we see "some art experts" believe Sickert wrote three Ripper letters using the same techniques as Sickert's.  I'm still not convinced that would stand up in court, but it's the most compelling evidence of all the letters Cornwell showed that were supposedly written by Jack the Ripper.
Cornwell touched on the public outrage that took place as the number of murders grew,

 
as well as how the police attempted to handle the murders.

Back to page 14 of the book, Cornwell referred to a Sickert painting called The Camden Town Murder or What shall we do for the rent? in which a man sat on a bed, next to a prostitute he had apparently just murdered, suggesting the earlier Whitechapel Murders.

A similar photo of a painting titled Persuasion was shown in the book and referenced as one from The Camden Town Murder series.  This one looked like the body on the bed was lifeless.  It would have been nice to see the other painting which Cornwell took the time to reference and eloquently describe.  Cornwell further postulated that Walter Sickert was the murderer of Phyllis Dimmock, the victim in the Camden Town murder, and that the Camden Town Murder series showed Sickert’s hatred of women.

Cornwell contended that during the painting of the Camden Town Murder series, Sickert used a red handkerchief which he knotted around his neck.  Cornwell further contended Sickert would sit and plan his next painting. This red handkerchief was linked by Cornwell with the Ripper murders based only on Joseph Lawende’s description of a man with a "reddish neckerchief" seen with Catherine Eddowes (pg 235) and the red handkerchief that George Hutchinson claimed he saw being given to Mary Kelly, the final known Ripper victim, on the night of her death (pgs 340-346).  From this we are supposed to leap to the conclusion that the red handkerchief owned by Walter Sickert in 1907 was the same one described by these two men in 1926, and that Sickert was Jack the Ripper.  There's that pesky problem called correlation, again.  I personally don't believe that kind of corollary evidence would hold up in court, at least not an American court.  Now I realize I have clothes that are 20 years old, but I doubt most men would keep a handkerchief for 19 years. 

There was at least one other painting that Cornwell claimed had some significance in proving that Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper.

Cornwell suggested Sickert painted only bedrooms with iron beds in them. Apparently Sickert was famous for this feature in his work, but in these two specific paintings (one if which was shown in the book) he replaced the iron bed with a wooden one much like Mary Kelly’s bed in her small room in Miller’s Court (pg 346). Cornwell went further and matter-of-factually stated these were depictions of Mary Kelly’s room. She even posed the question of how could he know what Kelly’s room looked like if he was not the Ripper.  My question to Cornwell is, how did SHE know?  Could it be Sickert had seen some of the same photos she saw?

Since art played such an important part and first impression on Cornwell's determining his guilt, she conceded that later in his life, Sickert became a very influential, albeit cult artist.  According to Cornwell, "By the time he was an old man, he was the greatest living artist in England (pg 351)."   She even admitted that if he had confessed to the Ripper murders in his old age, it was doubtful anyone would have believed him (pg 351).

In her dedication of the book, Cornwell wrote:
"To Scotland Yard's John Grieve
You would have caught him."
The fact Grieve took her to the places where Ripper crime scenes still existed (pg 76) is testament to her desire to be well thought of by Scotland Yard.  And Grieve was the one who first suggested she investigate Sickert.

At some point in Cornwell's investigation of these same crime scenes, she purchased a police issue lantern and attempted to recreate the conditions of the dark London alley in which police officers at the time would have had to work under while investigating the case. Much to her chagrin (my word, not hers) she soon discovered the lantern didn't emit enough light.  Instead, she had to switch to a flashlight in order to see what was in front of her.

Back in NYC, chapter two began with a narrative by Cornwell, telling about her evening, then walking home with her literary agent in New York’s upper east side. As they walked along the noisy streets, Cornwell let her imagination wander and wrote,
 “I began to imagine some thug trying to grab our briefcases or us. I would chase him and dive for his ankles and knock him to the ground.  I'm five foot five and weight 120 pounds, and I can run fast, and I’d show him, yes I would. I fantasized about what I would do if some psychopathic piece of garbage came up from behind us in the dark and suddenly.… (pgs 8-9) ”
It was at this point I personally began to wonder about this well known author.  Had she bit off more than she could chew or was she possibly even a bit delusional?

Now let's switch gears and look at "proof positive" from forensics.  Sickert was known to use a certain type of watermarked paper.  It appeared Jack the Ripper also might have sent letters to the police using that same type of paper.  Although there were numerous photos showing letters claimed to be written by Jack the Ripper, or Sickert, I personally couldn't see the connection.


Some were eloquently written with beautiful script, while some looked like a child who couldn't spell correctly had written them.  I'm still stumped as to how Cornwell was able to deduce these were all written by the same person.  Judge for yourself, although I didn't bother scanning the eloquent ones.

For more forensics, Cornwell called on her forensics team who performed DNA testing on the backs of envelopes and stamps from Ripper correspondence, as well as from Sickert's own correspondence.  Cornwell admitted that DNA testing of material over a century old had never before been done. And even though DNA testing had been around a few years, it was still in its infancy during 2000 to 2002.  Nuclear DNA tests, the usual form of DNA testing we are all familiar with from watching CSI, came back negative. After two disappointing tests, the forensics team attempted mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing, which provided some results. Similar sequences of mtDNA were found in both the Ripper correspondence and Sickert correspondence. Because the DNA was so old on the letters that were tested, there was a contamination problem that was only briefly mentioned by Cornwell.

In addition to possible contamination, it is unclear that Sickert licked his own stamps and envelopes. Cornwell confirmed it was common practice in Victorian times to use a moist sponge to seal envelopes, for fear of germs and bacteria. Cornwell further suggested some of the letters may have been mailed for Sickert by other people.  As a result, the envelopes and stamps may have been moistened by someone else's saliva. 

By now I'm sure you're asking what I REALLY thought of this book (grin).  Refer back to carrots and cigarettes (and before you ask, NO I don't smoke cigarettes), as well as my first and foremost occupation and you'll see how disappointed I am that I spent all that time reading the book, only to have so many doubts.

As a plus, I can see why people like Cornwell.  She writes well.  Even when she's trying to write non-fiction, she writes well.  Her eloquent details of crime scenes are flawless.  Her articulate descriptions and depictions help the reader conjure up images of the crimes and the killer.  And she makes a good case for her argument.

But it's not a definitive answer, as she claims.  She doesn't even offer an alternative killer, or even an alternative theory, settling on her first choice about the time Grieve put the idea in her head and she decided to spend all that money buying paintings and documents.   Also, in my opinion, she tried to hammer her point in a bit too hard.  So hard in fact, at times I felt I was reading a diatribe.

With all that in mind, I can only give this book 2 stars and that was because her writing style was so clear and her argument was so persuasive.  I was even drawn in by her writing. Save your money.  Buy it used or don't buy it at all.  I would offer you MY copy, but I'm going to alter it now that I've finished this review.   As I have shown, there are some great photos in the book I plan to use in my art.  And it has a killer (pun intended) dust jacket, too.


I confess I was quite uninspired by this book, and it got worse when I tried to cut Cornwell's  photo from the dust jacket to turn into a transparency using contact paper.  What I learned was that shiny book cover had it's own sealed cover, and when I tried to turn it into a transparency, the paper backing dissolved and left a layer of plastic and a layer of contact paper, neither of which wanted to stick to the other!  And neither gave the desired transparency I was looking for.

So I thought my plan was "half-baked" when I couldn't add Cornwell's photo, but I still stayed with my original plan that reads "Letters To

The Editor."

All letters were from the book and I was surprised when, once side by side, I could see a similarity among all the "P's."  None of the "J's" looked the same, nor the "R's" or "C's," which were the most prevalent of all the letters, except for "P."  Shown are the most famous of the letters, including the "Ha, Ha" letter, "Dear Boss" letter, and letters referencing "Catch me if you can."

I hope you don't think this is a cop-out (no pun intended) because, although I started this book right after I finished last month's ARC, I simply couldn't come up with anything else I liked for my art entry.  And I would gladly welcome your thoughts about this book, whether you have read it, or not.  And also your thoughts on the Ripper murders in general, and my analysis of Cornwell's account.  Please don't be shy, either.  I would like to know if you think I'm off the mark, or if you also have doubts. 

I'm going back to making collages next month.  No more true crime for me!


Thanks as always for your visits.  They are so informative and often helpful.  And please visit Darcy for links to other ARC members. 


25 thoughtful remarks:

Craftymoose Crafts said...

I'll admit to being a fan of Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta mysteries, but I have to this point not been interested in this book. You gave a very good review that cements my feeling that I probably would not have enjoyed it.

Craftymoose Crafts said...

I forgot to add, that I do like the piece you came up with despite the fact that you did not like/believe the book. :)

linda said...

I have to agree.I loved Cprnwell's early work, but the last several books have becone less and less realistic and much more paranoid and strange.
I awaited this book eagerly, she was still one of my favorites, but I was so distracted by the tone of certainty of her observations, and the singular focus on Sickert that I had to stop reading it. It was making me say "...oh, come on..." on every page.

Rita said...

I would not waste my time or money. I'm like you with the carrot smoking--ROFL! ;) I can see why the book might make great collage fodder, though.

Divers and Sundry said...

i appreciate your approach to this book. i think this is a classic case of someone with a pet theory looking for anything that can be used to support it while rejecting any evidence that stands in the way.

i have not read it but have read about it in the context of various "who was jack the ripper" discussions.

abby j said...

Tough book to review as you must maintain some distance. Not my cuppa tea, for sure!!!! Thanks for confirming that feeling although your review was outstanding.

Julie Ann Lee said...

I've never read anything by Ms Cornwell, as I'm not a crime fiction fan! Oddly I have read quite a bit about Sickert as an artist because I've read some books by people who knew him! Must say I've never been convinced by the Ripper idea and your review confirms my doubt, if you can confirm doubts! I don't think your art was a cop-out! I think it was interesting that what you attempted couldn't quite work because the book was too 'slippery'??? It kind of tried to evade even altering. Like the Ripper capture was tricky! Thanks for an interesting review and an interesting insight into the creative process. Fascinating! Julie Ann x

Sarah said...

I've had this book sat on my bookshelf for years but still haven't read it, so I have skimmed your review a little to avoid spoilers :) but I did get as far as the 'bad stats' comments, and as a stats graduate, I already know that this aspect of the book will annoy me :) ah well, I was intending to read it as fiction rather than fact anyway.... I like your artwork at the end even if you yourself were less keen!

Gina said...

Fabulously thorough review!...and collage is not a cop out...you are already looking at it with a keen eye, and will probably use it at a later date to "art" on :D
I have to admit to a morbid fascination about the Ripper cases, but all I ever see from the old photo is that they look to have been eaten by a wild animal....and the reports of maniacal laughter always drew me to hyenas. Could it be that someone was keeping one as a pet, and used these unfortunate women as a ready food source? :D XXX

see you there! said...

Like Linda, I enjoyed some of Cromwell's early novels but at some point became turned off of her writing. Not really interested in Jack the Ripper anyhow. I think you wrote an excellent review of the book. I do like the collage even with the paper problems you mention.

Darla

Monica said...

She joins a long line of writers who wrote on this topic,each with a different outcome. As a scientist you might like "the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack". By far the best of what i call journalist books. I learnt a lot from this book on genetics.

Marlynn said...

Good morning beautiful friend. Yes I have to get back to blogging but in the meantime I just tell you how much I so enjoyed your review of this book. I might be called a lazy Ripper fanatic and love all the stories, the movies, tv shows, and especially the latest tv series on BBC America called Ripper. Your review is spot on and I have to admit I have not heard many who have claimed this artist was the Ripper. You got it right girlfriend! Hugs.

San @ Made in Hem said...

Never read a book by Cornwell... Or much about Jack the Ripper... Not sure if I'm tempted now either... Do love the name Jack and just gave it to our new puppy! :-)
The artwork is lovely! Collage can go wrong but yours is great! ♥

voodoo vixen said...

Great book review E and I love what you did with the letters and look forward to seeing the book altered at some point! I think the ripper is going to be one of those mysteries... I have watched movies where they do the same thing as Cornwall.. but with another person... its so long ago you can make it go which ever way you choose!

Jez said...

I read a few of Cornwells earlier Kay Scarpetta books, and then I felt they were getting too gruesome and weird, and gave up on Cornwell. Your review confirms this feeling.
First of aa I want to say that your review was better than reading a book, you are such a good writer and you kept me interested all the way. Here in England we have, over my lifetime of nearly 80 years heard so much about The Ripper and so many theories and 'proofs' that one or other famous person WAS the Ripper, including King Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales. It has always seemed to me that it has more to do with the author seeking a sensational subject rather than being able to truly ascertain uncontroversial proof. Your review confirms my view that Cornwell was in that league. Very well presented case on your side, and for me the verdict goes to you.
Good idea with the artwork, I don't think it's a cop-out. Well, you have certainly stirred up responses here. Thanks for an interesting read.

abby j said...

Not a huge fan of crime books so Cornwell's not in my per view. This book sounds very confusing with it's theories and evidence...great inspiration for collage, however! Great review and art.

Darcy said...

Magnificent review!
I am kind of a fan of Cornwell, that is to say I have a lot of her Scarpetta books, and usually enjoy them. They are well written, however I am always, always disappointed with the endings.

I didn't know she had written this book and going by your review i think I will give it a miss.

Magaly Guerrero said...

I've never read any Cornwell. I might just because I read Jez comment where she said that she stopped reading after the books started getting too gruesome--I'm fascinated by fiction about killers (particularly of the serial variety).

Hm, I wonder if that information would make me some kind of Dexter or Lecter under Conrnwell's "model". Magaly is fascinated by tales about gruesome murders + Magaly enjoys writing dark and bloody fiction = Magaly must be a dark and bloody murderess.

I ENJOYED this review a LOT. And your selection of pictures were grand. I just love, love, love reviews that go deep into the flesh of the tale ;-D

SusieJ said...

What a thorough review! I read Patricia Cornwell but didn't buy this book....she does write well and her descriptions are usually vivid, but I disliked her certainty on the culprit ..and have seen/read more than I ever wanted on Jack the Ripper. Sorry you didn't like the book but love your artwork...and,no, it's not a "cop out"...he, he!!
Looking forward to your review of the collage book!
Hugs xx

Janet said...

Super review. As an ex police detective I am always interested in a good true crime but this is one that has been 'done to death' over the years. I like your objectiveness and analysis and especially your scepticism! I am inclined to believe a rather more ordinary person carried out the Whitechapel murders, perhaps a travelling salesman from Liverpool who, over a number of years, regularly stayed in a boarding house in the vicinity and who often left the crime area for long periods of time. Similar to modern day real life serial killers who have jobs that take them all over the country for short periods of time (like long distance lorry drivers etc.) What do you think?
Great collage of letters. Art in themselves. Fascinating.

Janet xx

Carmen said...

This was fascinating. I don't actively research the Ripper but i do watch documentaries or drama's based around 'him'. (Whitechapel was good - modern day crimes based on the old ones) I have to say I had never heard of the artist theory. I think the most famous ones are that it was someone from the Royal family or a Doctor who committed the crimes so it's weird that she would latch on to that.

I personally love your letter collage and even more so your comparisons to the handwriting.

I'm not a fan of this author - to gruesomne for me (I can handle zombies and pretend monsters but not things that could actually happen if that makes sense) so I'll pass on this one but I did love your dissection of the book.

Rebeca Trevino said...

i read and enjoyed most of Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta mysteries, then, like reading stephen king, i tired of the writing style and moved on.
that said, i have to say that you never cease to amaze. first of all, a scientist? a teacher of statistics? and now a book reviewer?
Who knew?
well done, E!
i will likely look for the book and give it a read, and get back to you. although i will admit, i'm not that much of a skeptic, i really enjoy reading a writer of fiction who can tell a fantastic story and 'tie' all the loose ends of a story together and make it plausible.
i enjoy it even if its just a little bit believable.
and wouldn't it be sensational if it turned out that "he was the Ripper?".
true, a court of law may not buy it, but that's a whole other novel, to be written by someone who writes prosecutor/defender, court/jury type of fiction.

did you know that there are over 100 'theories' of who Jack was, and Walt Sickert made the TOP 5 List of the LEAST LIKELY to be Jack the Ripper . . . .
http://www.bbcamerica.com/ripper-street/2013/01/14/the-5-craziest-jack-the-ripper-theories

Dawn said...

Very long and detailed review. I have also read this book but it was too many yrs ago to remember any thoughts I had about it other than I preferred her fiction writing. Nice work and great observations Dxx

Catie Cuddles said...

Great review and a clever use of the scanned info to create something. Not one for me ... No interest in Jack the Ripper nor an 'interesting' detective mission into trying to find the murderer now!
C xx

Jen said...

Interested in statistics but not Jack the Ripper, so not the book for me. Your review is very thorough and an interesting read. Good idea the collage of pieces from the book.
Jen x