Follies and Nonsense

March 17, 2017

Jack the Ripper, Patricia Cornwell, and Walter Sickert  

A fascinating interview in The Spectator (here) reveals more about Patricia Cornwell’s obsession with the identity of Jack The Ripper – including some interesting new evidence.

So here’s the smoking gun, here’s the forensic detail that would nail the killer were this actually a Scarpetta book: it’s the writing paper. Not only did Sickert use the same brand as Jack, it turns out, but an expert has now demonstrated that their paper came from the very same pad.

The Tate gallery suggested I use this paper expert, Peter Bower,’ Cornwell says. ‘I think they thought Peter would come in and show what nonsense this all was and they didn’t realise it was going to do the opposite. The paper stuff is just incredible. Peter examined three Sickert letters and two of the watermarked Ripper letters, and those five sheets of paper came from a batch run of only 24 that could have ever been made. And the thing that’s really creepy about it is the three Sickert letters were written on his mother’s stationery. So he was writing Ripper letters on his mother’s stationery. Now that’s a bit Freudian, isn’t it?’

Cornwell’s eyes are fired with conviction. I have a stab of doubt. What if Sickert wrote the Ripper letters but didn’t do the murders?

‘It’s a good question. I personally don’t think so,’ she says calmly. ‘But that’s where I have my 5 per cent rule. I think you have to hold out the 5 per cent doubt though I’m 95 per cent sure he did it. I mean Sickert never stopped talking about this his entire life.’

I think I agree with her about the 5% rule – only I’d say 5% that Sickert was the Ripper, and 95% chance that he was simply the author of the Ripper letters. We know, for example, that many people obsess over these cases, and that does not make them the guilty party. Cornwell’s obsession doesn’t make her the Ripper reborn, or any kind of serial killer, except in fiction. The writer of the Yorkshire Ripper letters was not the Yorkshire Ripper. Wearside Jack, as John Samuel Humble was nicknamed, sent three letters and left an audio message which derailed the investigation. False confessions to horrific crimes are not rare.

Why do we have so many theories about Jack the Ripper? It’s a question which still intrigues me, much more than question of his actual identity.

In any case, it looks like Cornwell’s new evidence about the letters derails the idea that journalist Francis Craig was the writer of the letters, and the killer – which I wrote about in my first post about Jack, here. It seems unlikely that Craig had access to Sickert’s mother’s stationery – although that would be twisty enough to find its way into a Scarpetta story.

It must surely be all bound up with why we love mystery stories so much. We (not just crime fiction readers and writers, but especially us, perhaps) don’t like not knowing not only who done it, but why.  That second part, the why of it all, is why we love the detail that Sickert was using his mother’s stationery. Not just a Freudian aha! moment – but who didn’t immediately think of Psycho? Perhaps it was just me whose mind immediately served up the rocking chair scene. Who and why are the questions that drive so many of the psychological thrillers we love.

As I put it in my second Ripper post,

So crime fiction – and true crime like Truman Capote, Janet Malcolm, Ann Rule and the Ripper books, even the addictive podcast Serial – are all ways of trying to get to the truth of human behaviour. It’s a survival mechanism. If our trust in other people is undermined in early life, understanding people becomes a driving necessity. From the earliest myths, through folk and fairy tales, epic poetry and gothic novels, revenge tragedies and morality plays, penny dreadfuls and religious tracts – perhaps that’s what all storytelling is about.

Of course, there aren’t many serial killers out there – the danger is really far closer to home. Every week two women in the UK are killed by partners and ex partners. Children are at more risk from their own families than from anyone else. These truths are hard to face.

No wonder Cornwell can’t stop hunting the Ripper.

I certainly think it’s one of the reasons I’m addicted to crime fiction.

What do you think?
Ann

 

Sources

Spectator interview

Wikipedia on Wearside Jack

My earliest post here on The Ripper

My second post on The Ripper

(No, really, I’m not obsessed).


February 24, 2017

Giveaway of A Savage Art  

For the UK, America, Canada and Australia

Please share

Goodreads Book Giveaway

A Savage Art by A.E. Rawson

A Savage Art

by A.E. Rawson

Giveaway ends March 05, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Thank you!

Ann


February 13, 2017

The problem with revenge stories  

Spoilers below for TV dramas Apple Tree Yard and Unforgotten, if you’ve not watched them yet.

Both dramas involved complicated plots about those who have been abused turning the tables on their abusers and getting away with it.

While in real life, we might abhor vigilanteeism and we have a judicial system that is intended to be fair and impartial and not based on vengeance, we do accept that there’s a difference between fiction and reality.

Don’t we?

Some people can’t tell the difference. I vaguely remember stories about an actor who played a rapist on East Enders coming in for personal abuse on the street. There’s theories that violent games inspire real life violence. Much is made of Norwegian Anders Breivik training by playing Call of Duty – whilst ignoring all the many people who have played the same game without ever planning and carrying out a terrorist attack – and ignoring the logical point that to use it to train meant that he’d formulated a plan rather than been pushed into action by the game itself. Perhaps most worrying is the idea that Jack Bauer of 24 provided the inspiration for real life torture, post 9/11

To what degree are the writers of fiction responsible if some reader or viewer confuses the boundary?  Let’s ignore Trump, whose comprehension of the difference between lies and truth is doubtful. And consider the possibility that intelligence operatives used torture because it worked for Jack Bauer.

Would that be the fault of the producers and writers of the show? Of the actors?

Or would it be the responsibility of those whose job it was to train them, to teach them about the law, to remind them of human rights. And most of all, perhaps, that torture doesn’t actually work. Not even in those faked up storylines where the stakes are high and there’s only so many hours to save the world.

Did 24 ever have a plot line when the torture failed? That would be good story telling. I did watch the first few series but I can’t say it stuck in my mind – and in spite of the helter skelter pace, it got boring.

But I do love revenge stories. Way back at Liverpool Uni in the late 70s one of my lecturers specialised in Revenge Tragedies and forced me to write an essay on Titus Andronicus. Now that’s torture for you.

The issue some have with these current dramas is that they aren’t tragedies. Vengeance is rewarded. There’s no requirement to dig two – or six – graves.

Here come the spoilers.

In Unforgotten (the second series), a body is discovered and the investigating team gradually uncover the truth about the long-dead man. It was a variant on the Strangers on a Train story. All the suspects had met in a psychiatric unit and recognised each other as abuse victims.  And between them they hatched a plan to revenge themselves on each other’s abusers – creating perfect alibis. It would have been difficult to prove, apart from the fact that the detective followed one of them and discovered them all chatting together in a pub…  The ending, which has disappointed some, has the investigating police colluding to ignore the evidence and let it go, out of sympathy for what they’d each endured, and because they had spent the previous twenty years as productive members of society and were no longer a danger to anyone.

While this was emotionally satisfying in the drama, it’s not how we’d see it in real life. Most of us would, I assume, prefer to see the courts deal with the evidence and then allow for mitigation. Maybe in a real life situation a jury would decide they were not guilty of murder, only of manslaughter. Perhaps a short prison sentence or a suspended sentence would be deemed appropriate. Or maybe a judge would decide they needed to be made an example of to deter vigilanteeism.

Apple Tree Yard is also a revenge story, with a twist or two along the way. The heroine, Dr Yvonne Carmichael, is a scientist who falls for a dodgy guy who leads her to believe he’s a spook. Clearly she must be punished for the sin of having a fling while she has a good job, a nice house and an acceptable husband (even if he might be playing away himself, I mean, he’s a bloke, so that’s allowed, right?). And so one of her colleagues clearly senses that she’s an immoral woman and is therefore fair game, and rapes her. It’s a truly shocking scene – brutal and violent. Perhaps more shocking is the way she becomes meek and plaible and goes along with his suggestion that they share a taxi. Shocking, that is, if you believe all the myths about rape, and how victims behave – and it seems many people still do.

So we know from the outset that Yvonne is on trial, along with her lover, Mark Costley, for George’s murder.

In various twists and turns we find out that Costley was not a spook – he failed to qualify because of suspicions that he has a personality disorder – his defence against the charge of murder. He’s married, with children. Yvonne finds out she really hardly knew him at all. There are shades of the Prisoner’s Dilemma throughout – will they stay loyal to each other? It seems not. And then, in a final twist, it is revealed that he was the more romantic – not her. That she asked him to deal with George. And so she gets away with her revenge as he is convicted and she walks free.

As a viewer I couldn’t help but feel glad that Yvonne got away with her revenge. I felt sad for Costley – not for George, who was violently murdered after all. I suppose that’s because we saw the brutality of the rape. And we saw that he continued to stalk her. That even though she didn’t report him and she altered her life to avoid him, that she’d allowed him to get away with it – still he wouldn’t leave her be.

In real life, would it be acceptable to incite murder, even of someone who has violently raped you and is a determined stalker? Of course not. Even though we know perfectly well how dangerous male aggressors of this kind are. Even though we know restraining orders are of limited use, that the police often fail to take stalking seriously, even though we know how low convictions for rape are… We still wouldn’t condone that kind of violence.

But this is fiction. I’m not sure that we really expect fiction to be realistic. At least, not all forms of fiction. We criticise dramas where we think they fail to be realistic, but we accept a certain amount of deviation from reality too. No one wants to see policemen doing paperwork, or on long observations when nothing happens. It’s a story.

Where would we start criticising Apple Tree Yard for its deviation from reality? The willingness of a respectable female scientist to have sex in a broom cupboard in the Houses of Parliament with a guy she knows nothing about? Her spectacular agility in leaping to the conclusion that he’s a spook, because he makes some random observation about how CCTV cameras work?

Me, I’d rather pick holes in reality. I suppose we could write a fiction in which justice prevails – the police act correctly, there’s evidence to be had and not just he said, she said situations, the jury are educated about the myths about rape and abuse, the court system always reaches a just conclusion. And we could all it, I dunno, Utopia. It wouldn’t be very emotionally satisfying for all the people who have been let down by the justice system. See the recent Guardian article about British rape trials. Nor would it be a very good story.

I have my own dog in this race. My own addiction to revenge stories to declare. My novel, A Savage Art, is also a revenge story.  I’m sure there are lots of areas where it fails the realism test.

Revenge stories are wish fulfilment for the powerless. I suppose I believe like comedy, they’re about punching up, rather than punching down. If they make the reader or the view think about issues of morality that’s a good thing. But if we expect a story to make our minds up for us, in this brave new world of FAKE NEWS, then we’ve already lost.

Ann

For another day, perhaps. Is it wrong to punch a Nazi?

P.S. My novel is currently only £0.99/$0.99 to download

Sources

Guardian – Inside British Rape Trials

NYT – Normalising torture on 24

CSM – Did 24 help to make torture acceptable?

American Thinker – Stranger than Fiction: Does 24 Inspire Real Life Torture?


December 6, 2016

Goodreads giveaway of A Savage Art  

The Goodreads giveaway is for UK readers only. If anyone else would like a copy please go and like my Facebook page and comment on my share of this blog post, and at the end of the giveaway on the 18th December, there’ll be another signed copy for a random commenter.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

A Savage Art by A.E. Rawson

A Savage Art

by A.E. Rawson

Giveaway ends December 18, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Facebook page link

Thank you!

Ann


December 2, 2016

On Anger and Revenge  

I was just reading this interesting article about the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s new book “Anger and Forgiveness” about the dangers of anger – and inevitably given the current zeitgeist, most of the discussion centres on the role anger has played in the American election. Being a political junkie, this is of coruse endlessly fascinating. I am altogether unconvinced that a strategy of meeting anger with calm reason can actually change political discourse, given that we humans are generally very emotional animals, although some of us are especially talented in the use of reason to create convincing intellectual arguments that justify our beliefs and ideologies. We seem to be less capable of using our reason to understand our own or anyone else’s emotions, though.

Surely anger has been the fuel that has brought much needed political change – even if right now it’s fuelling a backlash against the liberal quest to eradicate inequality in all its guises?  Her whole argument that anger is not socially useful seems to me to boil to the “Calm down, dear” approach to injustice.

On a personal level though, I cannot quite get my head around the idea that Nussbaum claims to have never been angry. To my mind, that makes her analysis suspect. Either she is being honest, or she is unaware of her own anger – and either makes her less capable of understanding the impossibility of what she’s asking of us ‘lesser’ beings.

Of course, I am fascinated by the impulse to revenge – I’ve just published a thriller exploring the question of whether it can ever be justified.  There’s a reason why we have a long tradition of revenge stories ending in tragedy. And we know the quotation from Confucious, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”  In the case of my heroine Kate, perhaps it might be wise to dig more… we shall see.  Culturally we are aware of the risks of anger. We are brought up to hide and disguise our anger – this is especially true of women, of course. And I sometimes thing squelching down on angry feelings, bottling them up, can make them more dangerous.

I suppose the difficulty is deciding where it is appropriate to draw the line. Someone who has never been angry probably isn’t best placed to decide that, any more than someone who is always angry.

In this context, I am reminded of the parable of the snake who refused to hiss.

Once upon a time, a holy man went from village to village visiting the people and giving assistance wherever he could.  One day he came to a town and entered the market place.  The people were all looking so unhappy.  “What is the matter, good people?” the old man asked.  “We are so frightened,” they said.  “We can barely do our work for fear of the snake.  It bites us all the time.  We don’t know when it will appear.  We are afraid to go to work in our fields, to let our children play in the streets, to even be here in the market place.”  The old man wandered on and soon came upon the snake.  “I hear you have been biting the people,” he said, “and I would like you to stop.  They are frightened of you and don’t get a moment’s rest.”  The snake realizing how much the holy man loved it agreed not to bite anyone again.

The old man continued on his journey and a few months later came back to the same village.  When he got to the market place he found the people were laughing and shouting.  Everyone was so happy.  “What has happened?” he asked.  The villagers told him that the snake had stopped biting them, that it came out each day from its hiding place but no longer attacked them.  The old man wandered about the village and soon came upon the snake lying in the gutter.  It was bleeding, and badly cut and bruised.  The old man could see that the snake was dying.  He gently picked it up and took it into the forest and laid it down out of the hot sun.  “What has happened to you?” he asked the snake.  The snake on its last few breaths said to the holy man, “ I did what you told me.  I stopped biting the people, but they started attacking me.  Wherever I went they would throw stones at me and kick me, and thrash me with sticks.”

The holy man held the snake with great love and tenderness and stroking the snake said to it ever so tenderly,  “I told you not to bite, but I never told you not to hiss.”

My favourite quotation on anger and revenge comes from Charlotte Bronte.

Jane Eyre is talking to Helen Burns (a girl who shares Nussbaum’s views on morality, as I recall) who has just been punished by the cruel teacher Miss Scatcherd

“… you are good to those who are good to you. It is all I ever desire to be. If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people whould have it all their own way; they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should – so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.”

The best revenge, they say, is living well.  But living well must also include taking action to prevent further harm. Sometimes that might require no more than hissing. Sometimes it might require more drastic action. Or so my protagonist, Kate Savage, would argue…

Ann

Sources

Article on Nussbaum’s book in The Nation – here

The parable of the snake who forgot to hiss – here

Jane Eyre Chapter Six – here