Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert
When Patricia Cornwell stepped away from her terrific Kay Scarpetta series in 2002 to pen PORTRAIT OF A KILLER: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed, she did not mince words as to her conclusion. In fact, the term “case closed” is sort of the literary equivalent of saying “end of discussion.”
Thankfully for us, that was not the end of the discussion on this topic. Cornwell, through PORTRAIT OF A KILLER and an accompanying TV special, produced what seemed like an air-tight solution to the long-standing mystery surrounding the notorious Jack the Ripper. While the UK has yet to officially announce the identity of the infamous killer who terrorized London in the late 1800s, Cornwell has come forward with an emphatic finger pointing directly at one person --- a man named Walter Sickert.
While the first book sought to prove who the killer was, RIPPER seeks to humanize him. We get to learn once and for all who Walter Sickert was and what drove him to become one of the most immortalized serial killers in all of recorded history. One thing is for sure: In the hands of Cornwell, prepare for an unflinching examination of Sickert and a blow-by-blow stripping down of the entire forensic case she makes to prove his guilt.
"RIPPER is not for those with weak stomachs as the text pulls no punches. The end result is an impressive work that proves to be just as tough as the writer who penned it."
Sickert was a semi-famous painter that followed his career as an actor. When he acted, he used the stage name “Mr. Nemo.” Two things are ironic about that fact. First, Nemo is Latin for “nobody” --- in essence, exemplifying how his Jack the Ripper character was actually Mr. Nobody. Secondly, a number of the Jack the Ripper letters that were sent in taunting manner to Scotland Yard were signed simply “Nemo.”
You might think this would be enough for Scotland Yard to have sniffed in the direction of Sickert as a potential suspect, but it never came about. Sickert's work as an artist also showed a tendency towards violence, particularly involving women. Boyhood sketches of his depicted women being abducted, terrorized and attacked. Sickert was born in Germany in 1860 to parents of Danish and English-Irish descent. He was always known for his interesting sense of humor, which is apparent in the tongue-and-cheek language used in the infamous Ripper letters.
You would think that Sickert's wife, Ellen Cobden, would have known the truth. It is clear that, whether she suspected her husband or not, she would not speak out against him and, in turn, sully her family name while seeing him subsequently hanged. Cornwell had her hands full during her investigation as there were few people who could speak to Sickert and what he was like. Making matters worse was the loss of so much critical paperwork, including several autopsy notes about the Ripper's victims.
Scotland Yard was, quite simply, completely unprepared for a killer as intelligent and sadistic as the Ripper. Newspapers and various tabloids were unabashed in their coverage of these brutal murders, often depicting photos of the victims in all their grotesque glory. Cornwell continues to link back the Ripper killings to Sickert's art work. His painting Ennui shows a shadowy figure lurking behind a woman. She spent time with writer Jean Overton Fuller, who penned the nonfiction book, SICKERT & THE RIPPER CRIMES. Overall, Fuller ended up pointing the finger at Dr. William Gull, who remained a suspect for many years with London law enforcement.
We should be grateful to Cornwell for actively pursuing the idea for her Ripper investigation. It was easy for her to get support to utilize the finest in modern-day detection and forensic science and apply it to this case. She also recognized that Jack the Ripper was a forensic scientist's worst adversary by constantly moving around, changing up his killings, and playing games with various names and writing styles throughout the Ripper letters.
Towards the end of this riveting work, Cornwell defends her results and the means she took to get there by listing criticism versus fact of all the pushback she received during her entire investigation. A timeline further supports her findings and places the reader directly into the reality of these brutal crimes. RIPPER is not for those with weak stomachs as the text pulls no punches. The end result is an impressive work that proves to be just as tough as the writer who penned it. Bravo!
Reviewed by Ray Palen on March 2, 2017