Monday 13 February 2012

Review: The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper

The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper by James Carnac.
Bantam Press 2012.

This review contains spoilers.

When I'm chatting to religious types, as I'm prone to do, one question which often comes up is why they believe that the Bible (or whatever their tome of choice may be) is the unadulterated word of God. There are many answers, but a lot of them boil down to the simple logic: it is the word of God because it claims to be the word of God. Now while it may be easy to see the circularity of such an argument, it does act as a reminder of just how many books are out there that claim to be something that they are not. My favourite is Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, in the foreword of which the author recounts the story of his discovery of a manuscript by the Benedictine monk, Adso of Melk. Eco, so he claims, is merely the story's translator. (As Paul Begg points out in his notes on The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper, George MacDonald Fraser made a not dissimilar claim when introducing Flashman.)

And so James Carnac's 'autobiography' comes with its own foreword, describing how it fell into the hands of its discoverer, Sydney George Hulme Beaman (famous not least as the creator – I kid you not – of Larry the Lamb).

If the subject were not the Whitechapel Murderer, I doubt whether the question 'is it genuine' would ever come to mind. Had it not been for the emergence, two decades ago, of James Maybrick's supposed diary, would the world of Ripperology spend any of its valuable time considering if James Carnac (of whom no historical trace has been found) were actually the Ripper? To be honest, not too much valuable time has been spent. The noted Ripper expert Paul Begg gives us 30 odd pages of quite reasonable analysis, but leaves many potential lines of enquiry unexplored (or at least his exploration unreported). Even if the name of every character in the book had been changed, it would still not be too hard to find reports of the inquest of a doctor (Carnac's father) in Tottenham who cut his wife's throat and then his own, nor of the road accident in which Carnac lost a leg, nor of his death in a gas explosion near Russell Square. But such enquiries would take time and effort, and although Begg has in the past shown his skill and willingness to put these into an investigation, it must be hard to find inspiration when one knows that all clues will come to nothing. Carnac's work screams from every page that it is a work of fiction.

Which is not to say that it is a fake. People often say that the Turin Shroud is a fake, but what they really mean is that they are now convinced that it is not something that they once suspected it might be. To be a fake, it must be proved not to be what its creator intended people to believe it to be. If the Turin Shroud turns out to have been a cover for the tortured body of Jaques de Molay, or an early experiment in photography by Leonardo da Vinci, then it will genuinely be that thing, and not be a fake anything else. The fakery is only in the minds of those who want to believe.

Thus The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper is no fake. It is merely a work of fiction with a forward that is intended to add verisimilitude, much like The Name of the Rose or Flashman. As a work of fiction, how does it stand up?

To be clich├ęd, it's something of a curate's egg. The story is divided into three parts – Carnac's early life, the Ripper murders, and the events leading to his death. Of these, the first part is by far the best. Despite the author's repeated (and perhaps telling) insistence that he has no skill in writing, there is good pacing and some nice turns of phrase. The story covers the gruesome death of his parents, his own growing bloodlust, his conversations with the mysterious 'Voice', his discovery of his family's macabre history and his encounter with the embodiment of the evil that has haunted every generation of his ancestors.

Great stuff! And whilst not approaching the quality of H.P. Lovecraft or M.R. James, it's of the same kidney. Part two, covering the Ripper murders themselves, disappoints. Here one might almost suspect that the author genuinely is trying to convince us that he is the Ripper. As a writer of historical fiction, I know that is better to add invented detail to make a scene more convincing and that I will get little comeback for minor inaccuracies. However, the cursory coverage of the murders in Whitechapel suggests an author who fears getting caught out in his mistakes. Even then, as Paul Begg points out, he does make many mistakes – often ones that would have been easy to check.

But the real problem of part two is its failure to deliver on Carnac's motivation. Part one has convincingly told us of his growing desire to see and feel a knife cutting into living human flesh, and told us that this was to be the reason for his becoming the Ripper. But once he does kill, we hear nothing of his reaction to finally committing the act to which he has so long been drawn. Nor is there anything to explain how a desire simply to cut a human throat spirals into the squalid, uncontrolled evisceration to which the Ripper descended at Miller's Court. In his foreword, Hulme Beaman tells us that he has 'removed and destroyed portions of the manuscript which contained details particularly revolting to me.' It should be noted, that there is no trace of any such censorship of the typescript (which, I add in passing, is irritatingly referred to as a manuscript throughout the book). This sounds to me more like an author's pretended excuse for not going into a level of detail that he guesses would be unacceptable to his readership, but in reading part two it almost seems that the author has forgotten the groundwork he laid in part one, or that part two was written first, or perhaps even by a different author.

Part three is different again. It is a short tale of a murderer hoist on his own petard, for which there is no real requirement that the murderer be Jack the Ripper. The events take place forty years after the Ripper murders – close to the time the document seems to have been written. This section begins like the rest as a first person narrative, but the twist in the tail is delivered as a separate coroner's report, thus neatly avoiding the necessity for Carnac, like Moses, to be the narrator his own death. The problem here though is that this seems to defeat the conception of the entire work as being an autobiography. One would at least expect a further note from Hulme Beaman explaining his later discovery of the coroner's report. Perhaps that would be just too pat. What is confusing though is that the coroner's report was written out using the same typewriter as the last part of Carnac's autobiography.

Ultimately my guess would be that the autobiography is in fact an amalgamation of three short stories – or perhaps even two, with the middle Ripper section added rather cursorily to link them and to increase public interest. While this does still leave questions, many of which Begg raises, over numerous inconsistencies even this is taken as a work of fiction, I don't see any of them as particularly serious. We all from time to time (or is it just me?) send half-baked ramblings to our editors in the knowledge that we'll have the chance to iron out the wrinkles later on. Moreover, there's nothing to suggest that this was the final revision of the work. Hulme Beaman died in 1932, only a few years after the document's presumed date, so it may have been a work in progress.

In the end, I think that this is a book that may appeal more to the aficionado of early twentieth century horror than to the Ripperologist. Luckily, those are two groups between which there is a substantial overlap, which includes myself. The biggest question that remains for me is whether Hulme Beaman really is the author of this work of fiction, or whether he added his foreword to the work of another.

Personally, I like to think that Hulme Beaman wrote it himself. It's a heck of a lot better than Larry the Lamb.