A wild ride down the back alleys of London in the service of "Ripperology.”
His title dripping with irony, British director/screenwriter/actor Robinson (The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman, 1999, etc.) takes aim at the pieties of Victorian Britain, a time when sex, drugs, and the moral equivalent of rock ’n’ roll were readily available to anyone who could afford them. Against a setting of streetwalkers and junkies, the author opposes the old boys of the empire (“Kitchener was an imperious bully even when he didn’t need to be”), stout fellows who exchanged secret handshakes and kept one another’s secrets—good reason, one might think, to suspect that the penny-dreadful serial killer nicknamed Jack the Ripper might have been a card-carrying member. He was no Rotarian or Elk, Robinson continues, but a full-fledged Freemason, and his secret was protected through a web of accident and design, doubtless with the assistance of the cops—for the commissioner of Metropolitan Police, “a lousy cop and a worse soldier” whose “God inclined to the hard right—probably something like Kitchener in freshly laundered clouds,” made sure that the Ripper was untroubled by justice, whether by ineptitude or design. Robinson names names, eventually settling on a fellow close to another fellow on whom suspicion has fallen and lifted and fallen again for a dozen decades now: “the conspiracy to airbrush [him] out of his own history was cooked up a very long time ago.” The book takes a whirlwind tour of a lost world, with its Dickensian “street Arabs” and cockney rhymes. Whether Robinson has hit on the solution to the Ripper’s identity, finally, will be a matter for Ripperologists and criminologists alike to debate. What he has done is to produce a lively, oddball work of literature that blends true crime, social history, and the occasional whiff of psychedelia into an utterly original whole—good reason for the book to have been longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.
A ripping good read, strange, suggestive, and memorable.