Saturday, February 1, 2014

Portrait Of A Killer: Jack The Ripper Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: January 31, 2013

In this headline-making work of non-fiction, Cornwell turns her trademark skills for meticulous research and scientific expertise on one of the most chilling cases of serial murder in the history of crime-the slayings of Jack the Ripper that terrorized 1880s London. With the masterful intuition into the criminal mind that has informed her novels, Cornwell digs deeper into the case than any detective before her-and reveals the true identity of this elusive madman. Enlisting the help of forensic experts, Cornwell examines all the physical evidence available: thousands of documents and reports, fingerprints, crime-scene photographs, original etchings and paintings, items of clothing, artists' paraphernalia, and traces of DNA. Her unavoidable conclusion: Jack the Ripper was none other than a respected painter of his day, an artist now collected by some of the world's finest museums.

════════════════════════════ ❧  ════════════════════════════

Walter Richard Sickert
Portrait, 1884
I vaguely remember the hullabaloo that marked the publication of Patricia Cornwell's Portrait of a Killer in 2002, but it wasn't until hearing a coworker gush over her 'spectacular analysis' and 'expert forensic investigation' that I actually decided to read it.

Unfortunately, after spending two days with the book, I can honestly say I think it makes a better doorstop than it does a criminal analysis. As far as I'm concerned, the only thing Cornwell's work proves is the strong possibility that Sickert wrote letters to Scotland Yard, but let's be honest folks, putting pen to paper is a long way from sinking a knife into a human body. 

Don't get me wrong, Cornwell presents an interesting hypothesis, but at the end of the day her arguments lack concrete evidentiary support. An inclusionary theory, it is by no means conclusive and cannot be accepted with any degree of certainty.  

Essentially, Cornwell claims Sickert is the Ripper because there is no evidence that he didn't do it. The problem is there is no evidence he did either. Cornwell's findings are based largely on bias perception, speculation, conjecture and presumed inference. She doesn't tie Sickert to actual murders, refute alternative theories or adequately explain why she accepts some of the surviving documentation while conveniently rejecting the rest. 

In all honesty, I feel Cornwell is grasping at straws, imagining associations where none legitimately exist. Why do I think this? Well, she practically admits it. 

I noticed murky images of clothed men reflected in mirrors inside gloomy bedrooms where nude women sit on iron bedsteads. I saw impending violence and death. I saw a victim who had no reason to fear the charming, handsome man who had just coaxed her into a place and state of utter vulnerability. I saw a diabolically creative mind, and I saw evil. I began adding layer after layer of circumstantial evidence to the physical evidence discovered by modern forensic science and expert minds.

Keep in mind the 'physical evidence' she is referring to is the letters. Watermarks on Ripper correspondence most experts consider to be fake and mitochondrial DNA from a single source that cannot be confirmed. And the 'expert minds' she mentions? Professionals certainly, but all on staff at the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine, Cornwell's former employer.

Thoroughly unconvincing, Portrait of a Killer is really much better when one approaches it as a warped Sickert biography or imaginative fiction. Presumptuous in both content and tone, I feel the time I spent on this one well and truly wasted. 

════════════════════════════ ❧  ════════════════════════════
I had never read a Ripper book in my life. I knew nothing about his homicides. I did not know that his victims were prostitutes or how they died. I asked a few questions. Perhaps I could use Scotland Yard in my next Scarpetta novel, I thought. If so, I would need to know factual details about the Ripper cases, and perhaps Scarpetta would have new insights to offer about them.
════════════════════════════ ❧  ════════════════════════════

No comments: