The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper by James Carnac
|The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper by James Carnac|
|Category: Crime (Historical)|
|Reviewer: Robin Stevens|
|Summary: It probably (in fact almost certainly) isn't the autobiography of Jack the Ripper but it's still an engaging read for fans of historical fiction. It's recommended unless you really are hoping that it's the real thing.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 416||Date: October 2012|
In 1888, a man known as Jack the Ripper murdered six prostitutes in the East End of London and got away with it. Who was he? Why did he do it? Almost everybody has their pet theory. The list of suspects is, likewise, alarmingly diverse. Anyone who was anyone in Victorian London seems to have been accused of the murders at one time or another. Walter Sickert, Prince Albert and Lewis Carroll have all had their moment in the sun, but 124 years later we’re still no closer to discovering the real culprit. Enter James Carnac and his ‘memoir’ The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper.
The Autobiography presents itself as the Ripper’s story told from his own perspective. The son of an impoverished doctor, young Carnac has a childhood obsession with blood which a series of unfortunate events morphs into a full-blown desire to slit human throats. It’s the typical Victorian coming-of-age story (from birth, to school, then first love and finally adulthood) with a twist, in that the path Carnac’s on leads him to become not a responsible adult but the most famous murderer of the nineteenth century.
Before I actually picked this book up, I was absolutely certain that it would prove to be a hoax. Oh, sure, the manuscript ‘dates from the 1920s’. It was ‘found in a box of toy memorabilia’. Tell me another one. Pretending that your work of fiction is cold hard fact is a device that’s as old as the novel itself. From Gulliver’s Travels to A Million Little Pieces, generations of readers have been tricked by apparently earnest disclaimers. It’s so common that when I see the sentence, ‘What follows is the truth’, what I take in is, ‘What follows is a gratuitous lie from beginning to end’. Except that, er, that story about the Autobiography ’s manuscript is true. The book’s registered author really is ‘James Carnac’ and its manuscript really was discovered among the papers of Sydney George Hulme Beaman, 1920s children’s writer and creator of Larry the Lamb. If this is a hoax, it’s not a recent one.
But is it a hoax at all? We’re being encouraged to think that it’s not. At the end of the text there’s an appendix by prominent Ripperologist Paul Begg, who evidently believes that this is the confession of the real perpetrator of the Ripper murders. It was written at a time when the Ripper could still have been alive, it gives an unusual psychological portrait of a man who kills for fun rather than because of some ridiculous conspiracy (if you’ve read around the Ripper legend or seen the dire Johnny Depp film From Hell, you’ll know the kind of thing Begg means), and… it would be totally awesome if it were true.
Well, yes, it would be totally awesome. Unfortunately, I think Begg has let his imagination run away with him. Even he has to admit that ‘Carnac’ gets a lot of basic information about the murders wrong – he forgets where they were committed, mixes up evidence and describes his victims incorrectly. There’s nothing in The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper that couldn’t have been found in the available source material or just plain invented, and by contrast there’s so much in it that reads like melodramatic fiction. Carnac keeps having visions of his loved ones bleeding from wounds on their necks, and later he repeatedly hallucinates a dark stranger who incites him to each of his murders. Of course, fact can often read like fiction. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Faking your autobiography was a major literary pastime in the early twentieth century, and it doesn’t seem at all unlikely to me that Mr Beaman got bored and decided to write some adult fiction in secret.
Do I believe that Carnac was the Ripper? No. In fact, I don’t even believe he was a real person. He looks and behaves so much like a pantomime villain (sallow cheeks, straggly black hair, tendency to lurk creepily) that I can’t imagine him as an actual human being. What The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper is, in my opinion, is a fascinating and enjoyable (if very dark) piece of fiction. This is a novel, not a confession, and that’s how it should be read. In fact, if I’d thought for a moment that it was real I’d have had a lot more trouble with its contents. Fans of crime, Victoriana or Jack the Ripper will have a lot of fun with this. People searching for the truth about the Whitechapel murders may be disappointed.
If you're interested in the Ripper myth or London's crime history, try Capital Crimes: Seven centuries of London life and murder by Max Decharne.
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