The Passion Of The Ripper

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THE PASSION OF THE RIPPER. By Nicholas Nicastro, Seattle, Washington, USA: CreateSpace, 2010 ISBN-13: 9781453619469; ISBN: 1453619461, Paperback, 196pp, $11.99; Kindle e-book version, $4.99

A strong new entry in the world of Ripper fiction is this novel by veteran writer Nick Nicastro, author of five previous historical novels on various topics. The writer tells us that his aim in writing The Passion of the Ripper was to create ‘a different kind of Ripper story: not a whodunit, but a naturalistic exploration of the man, his city, and his times. It tells this well-known story from the inside out, from the points of view of the killer, the cops, and his final victim. It is the result of extensive research on the subject, but the aim is a kind of truth beneath and beyond the facts.’

It might not be giving too much away to reveal that the man who turns out to be the Ripper is Severin Klosowski aka George Chapman. He first appears early in the novel while still in his native Poland. The suspect is portrayed as a man with strange sexual proclivities in the presence of an icon of the Black Madonna of Częstochowska—whose bloody-cheeked image is featured on the cover of the novel. Chapman was a gentile Pole who sometimes posed as a Jew.

Before that scene, we see Marie Jeanette Kelly aka plain Mary Jane arriving on the boat train from Paris, met by none other than George Hutchinson, the ‘pal’ of hers who would later give evidence to Inspector Abberline that he saw Kelly arrive with a well-dressed Jewish-looking man in an astrakhan coat early on the morning of her murder, 9 November 1888. After arriving from Paris, Kelly fails to get a job in a milliner’s shop when she finds that the owner of the shop is a man she had ‘serviced’ in her other capacity as prostitute. She therefore takes a room in Miller’s Court, Spitalfields, where she lives with her lover, the Billingsgate Market fish porter Joe Barnett, who lives on her immoral earnings but who later decamps after the couple have an argument. Of course, George Chapman is not a mainstream candidate for the Ripper. Rip readers will be aware that Chapman was ultimately arrested for the poisoning murder of several common-law wives and was hanged in 1903. He had trained as a surgeon in Poland and, unable to qualify as a medical man in England, worked as a barber, living on Cable Street and other locations in the East End. He seems to have been a cruel man who evidently took pleasure in the slow painful death of his women, but there is little evidence to suggest he might have been the Ripper as well. Even so, a number of writers have made him their suspect for the Whitechapel murderer, notably American writer R Michael Gordon who has written several books about him, also claiming that Chapman was responsible for the Thames Torso Murders contemporaneous with the Whitechapel crimes.

Nicastro nicely evokes the feel of East End of 1888, and also well describes the upper and lower classes of the day. On the other hand, his rendering of Cockney dialect is a bit odd, as you’ll see from this passage that features none other than writer H G Wells:

“Hey Clyde, did yer mate say e was fram Amerryca?” Edna asks in a voice incongruously girlish.

“E said Indian, not Amerryca. Wot of it?”

“Ton’t ye know nothing?” pipes Alex. “The Ripper’s Amerrycan. Tis common knowledge, it is.”

“If you’re asking if I know who the Ripper is, I’m sorry to tell you I don’t,” says Wells.

“From what I’ve seen, the killings might as well have been done by an invisible man!”

“Ats too bad. Couldoff made a right sum turnin in th Ripper’s haccomplises!”

“Psshaw! Shame on ye fer casping asperitions on our distin’ished guest. Mister H.G. Wells is a college man, e is!” declares Clyde.

Students of the case might find it a bit jarring to find Detective Sergeant George Godley reduced in rank to ‘PC Ronald Godley’, or that the beat coppers at the scene of the Goulston Street graffito would refer to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren as ‘General.’ It’s true enough that Warren was a career British Army officer before and after his stint as head of the Met but there is little evidence that subordinates would have referred to him by anything other than his police title. Nonetheless, the way Nicastro describes Warren in Goulston Street is consistent with what Warren stated later. That is, that he ordered the inscription on the wall that declared enigmatically ‘THE JUWES ARE THE MEN THAT WILL NOT BE BLAMED FOR NOTHING’ to be eradicated for fear that an anti-semitic riot might be provoked against the Jews of the area. As depicted by the novelist, the coppers on the scene, including Abberline, Sergeant Thicke, and City of London police detective Halse protested Warren’s determination to wipe away the chalk inscription. After all, it would mean destroying evidence on City police territory. Abberline, Thicke and Halse are all dumbfounded. No one can answer, so Warren continues:

“I will not be party to inviting a race riot while I run this city! This isn’t bloody Minsk. Do you understand, Abberline?”

“In all honesty, no I don’t, general.”

PC Cobb shows up with a bucket and sponge, stands by. The shock of its arrival reactivates Halse’s voice:

“You have no right to destroy this evidence! This isn’t your jurisdiction!”

...All eyes turn to Abberline. Warren glowers at him. “I’m giving you the authority. Erase it!” ....Abberline looks at the graffito again, then back at Warren. The right decision is clear to him.

“I’m sorry, sir--I cannot agree.”

“Blast you! I’m trying to hold this city together with a lot of cowards and insubordinates! Give me that bloody thing!”

Warren snatches the sponge from Cobb. From the street, the chant of “Warren Be Damned” rises from the crowd. The commissioner strides resolutely to the wall.

“General Warren, I respectfully request you reconsider.”

Without a moment of hesitation, Warren wipes the Ripper’s message away.

Thicke turns away, muttering “I don’t bloody believe it.”

While it might not be historically correct that Sir Charles Warren personally removed the chalk inscription from the wall, as with other aspects of the plot of this well-researched novel by Nick Nicastro, the passion of the moment is well described by this talented writer. The book is recommended as a good read capturing the gist of the story of the Whitechapel murders and of the psychology of the man who committed them.

This review originally appeared in Ripperologist no. 117 November 2010. Copyright © 2010 Ripperologist.