With irritable, first-rate novels like Against the Country and After Birth, 2015 has proven itself something of “the year of the literary rant,” so it checks out that one of the best books of the Halloween season (and it is a “season” in publishing) is a breathless, 800-page complaint against “the cupidity and institutionalized hypocrisy” of Victorian England’s ruling elite. It is also a something of a bizarre, obsessively researched book of historical whodunnitry on the subject of Jack the Ripper. And it is a spectacular (and perhaps unnecessary) raid on the Ripperology subculture that has camped around the fire lit by the notorious case of serial murder for 130 years.
The other thing is that They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper is written by Bruce Robinson, one of the great wits of British cinema — of all cinema, really. Robinson is most famous for his role as the writer and director of Withnail and I, maybe one of the funniest movies ever made. It is certainly among the best literary comedies, ending as it does with Withnail, its dipsomaniacal hero, soliloquizing Hamlet to a pack of wolves.
Fans of Robinson’s work will be thrilled to learn that They All Love Jack reads as if Withnail wrote it — if Withnail, for some reason, had gotten on the wagon and stayed there by dint of a curious obsession with Jack the Ripper. This is to say that while there is no obvious reason why Robinson would want to write such an enormous book about the murders, one that must have taken years to complete, it is clear that he was driven to do it by an uncontrollable literary-historical monomania of the sort that produces strange, singular books that beg to be read. It also means that the book is steeped in British drollery and dramatic verve: to build his case, Robinson shrewdly relies on cinematic scene setting, imagined dialogue, smokescreen asides, and a seemingly endless supply of dryly caustic jabs against the ruling class and its praetorian guard. Even the author’s note is entertaining:
There is an aphorism. When you see a giant, make sure it isn’t a dwarf standing in a favourable light. Thus we approach, ‘the mystery of Jack the Ripper’.
He’s in a house of smoke and shifting mirrors. There are glimpses of amorphous faces. Many Jack the Rippers are in here, feeding off what historical fragments their keepers can throw in the pit.
This book has no interest in the house of mirrors, and despite selective admiration for some, no interest in Ripperologists. I don’t believe this collective could catch the object of its aspiration in a thousand years, and furthermore, I don’t believe in ‘the mystery of Jack the Ripper’ either.
The horde of readers comforted by dreams of masonic conspiracy will find a soft pillow in this brick of a book, although Robinson is forthright in admitting that he doesn’t really care about Freemasonry. “When I set about researching this book I wasn’t thinking, ‘How can I have a go at Freemasonry,’” Robinson writes. “Had the history suggested a Seventh Day Adventist, a Catholic, Hindu, atheist or Jew, the procedure would have been the same.” Still, he says, “[E]verything I read escalated my consideration of Freemasonry.”
Robinson’s point, one I’ve heard made by Gore Vidal, is that ruling elites don’t need to conspire because they already think alike. In this case, a brew of patriarchy, sexual repression, and Freemason ritualism bubbles like black magic in the Victorian ruling mind, leading not to a vast conspiratorial machinery so much as an attempt to stifle murders that rely on masonic imagery. In Robinson’s version of the Whitechapel murders, the Ripper was using the bodies of his victims, as serial killers have done since, to play out an elaborate, rageful, “funny little game” (the Ripper’s words) with his Freemason adversaries. Or, as Robinson puts it, “Nobody ever treated Freemasonry with more contempt than Jack the Ripper.”
It is, to be fair, hard to overstate how many of these figures of power were Freemasons. At the center of it all is Sir Charles Warren, the archaeologist and historian of Freemasonry who later became the Metropolitan police commissioner during the reign of the Ripper. There is also Robinson’s candidate for the Ripper, whose name and background I’ll not reveal other than to say that he’s more Ted Bundy than Charles Manson.
Is Robinson’s version of the Ripper story true? Handsomely researched, thoroughly presented: it could be. But it hardly matters. I came to wish more works of “history” were as scary and hilarious, as idiosyncratically told.