The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, November 25, 2013


So, this weekend, the New York Times "By the Book" interview featured thriller writer and amateur "Ripperologist" Patricia Cornwell. The questions are pretty standard fare, so the author knows what to expect, and yet this exchange took place:
What does your personal book collection look like? Do you organize your books in any particular way?

Mostly we’re talking about what I have electronically, organized by what I’m reading at the time, not only on my iPad but also on my iPhone. My printed books are mostly collectibles such as my own books, including leather-bound editions. There are also treasures like signed books by friends (Tom Clancy, Annie Leibovitz, John Jakes, to name a few) and of course a few precious finds such as signed first editions of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
"Collectibles such as my own books?" That's self-esteem. Even in leather-bound editions.

I haven't read her Kay Scarpetta novels, which have sold enormously well, and have a devoted following, so clearly Ms. Cornwell is doing something right. No, it's just that her Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed, has always struck me as a profoundly odd work, and a rather unnecessarily self-defeating one at that.

In it, Cornwell claims in, as her title suggests, no uncertain terms that painter Walter Sickert committed the crimes, a theory that has been around long enough that it was addressed in Donald Rumbelow's classic (if dated now) account of the crimes.

In forming my own opinion of Cornwell's account, I ran across a description of a lecture Cornwell gave on the subject:
She walked onto the stage like a rock star playing in front of a home town crowd. She was wearing a blue wind breaker with FORENSICS written in bright yellow across the back (the jacket, she later stated, was given to her by the UT School of Forensics). After the applause died down, she opened the lecture by saying "The reason we were able to catch this son of a bitch is one word. . ." With that, she stepped out from behind the podium turned around and dramatically threw her arms into the air, above her head. She then started pumping her arms and fists downward, pointing to the yellow FORENSICS on her back. The crowd once again erupted into a riotous standing ovation, and I found myself waiting for The Rock to come out and lay down some WWF smack on a wimpy Walter "The Painter" Sickert lookalike!
Well, no. there are significant critiques of Cornwell's theory, but for me the most salient point is that she simply overhyped her findings to an extraordinary degree. She has come up with clever and well-reasoned arguments that rebut the classic arguments used to exclude Sickert, and a novelist's insight into character that she brings to construct a picture of Sickert that would be consistent with him being Jack the Ripper. In sum, she makes a plausible enough theory that Sickert could have been the Ripper. And from that, she concludes that she has proven his guilt. Well, no. She has written a lively, if tendentious, account of the case against one possible suspect, and has weakened certain of the arguments that purported to conclusively exclude him. That's not nothing, and had she not ballyhooed her claims so much further, well, I might have even tried a couple of Scarpetta novels.

But it's a long way from "catching this son of a bitch," even if her ultimate conclusions were to be vindicated. Because Walter Sickert died in 1942, aged 82 years. He's beyond catching, now, by Cornwell's efforts, or by anybody else's.

The first draft of this post was funnier--much funnier, I think, leaning more on Cornwell's bombastic moments. But you know something? There is something to admire here, too. As quoted in the NYT, Cornwell admires Harriet Beecher Stowe, because, Cornwell says, she "reinforces the concept that the root of evil is the abuse of power, and it is important for all of us to remember that. It’s why people bully. It’s why they rape, torture and murder." And Cornwell cares for the victims of Jack the Ripper--in her book, she has a palpable need to believe that she has succeeded, that justice has at last been served, and that the deaths of these poor women, whose lives were deeply unhappy and difficult, are remembered only for their victimization.

I think that's admirable in Cornwell, even if she goes over the top in her theorizing, and relishes her own success perhaps a bit more than is discreet, she still cares about the victims of violence, and does her best to deny their killer any kind of mythic status. And she clearly burns with a desire to see justice done.

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