Jack the Ripper is a worldwide phenomenon, even one-hundred twenty-eight years later. The gruesome murders that he committed, the visceral portraits of scarlet and flesh that adorned walls and alleys, continue to fascinate and terrify here in the 21st century. The fact that he has never been caught just adds more glamour to his immortality. Stephen Hunter captures the grotesque actions of London’s most horrifying monster with amazing detail and a well-written, thought-provoking perspective in the novel, I, Ripper.
I, Ripper takes us into the minds of two distinct individuals. You have Jeb, who is a journalist for the London periodical called Star, and then you have the man himself: Jack the Ripper. The format of their tale is a switch off between Jeb’s Memoirs and Jack’s Diary. Thus the story unfolds, one brutal killing at a time. When the book begins, we are immediately introduced with the savage telling of Jack’s first victim, which he recounts with raw precision and vibrant, nauseating imagery. As Jeb makes his introduction to the audience, we learn that he’s reminiscing about the events of Jack the Ripper some twenty-four years later. Here a cat-and-mouse game begins to form.
This book was a very enjoyable read for me. There is so much to soak up while being wholly engaged in what is going on. The description of emotions, atmospheres, even the politics of a diversifying Western city such as London—all work together to give I, Ripper a flourish of depth. It is unforgivably sadistic. A chill will run down your spine, icy cold, as your eyes absorb a heartless retrospect of how easily the knife sliced through guts and organs. The sheer amount of passion and pleasure that emanates from Jack’s diary entries is astounding. Visual stimulation aside, there is a whole personality behind that blade, and it’s one of high intellect. This is a person that reads. A person who has experienced something sad, dark, or tragic in his existence. You have a human being who understands society and the politics of foreign policy, war, the establishment as well as the average person, whether of a high station or a low one. Jack the Ripper is a man who thinks, profoundly.
Another titillating tidbit of I, Ripper are the theories. They formulate quickly as madness and panic begins to spread across London like a plague. It’s leaked into the papers that Jews are behind the massacres. Of course they would have to be the killer with their weird beliefs and sacrificial ritual practices, right? I mean doesn’t that just make marvelous sense? While in this day and age such a belief is absolutely preposterous, for the time period of 1888 it was a plausible assumption. You had many Jewish people flooding into London’s East End seeking refuge from the fallout of the assassination of Tsar Alexander in Russia. The vast majority of these immigrants made home near Whitechapel, where Jack made his debut, around the same time as the first killing as well. It was far easier for the English people to accept that the “ripper” was someone different, someone who wasn’t a natural-born Englishman. The mere thought of such a madman being one of their own was simply a notion that just would not compute in the late 19th century. A few other theories sprout about, but if I spilled them all then that would just kill all the fun.
One of the aspects that I found extremely gratifying about reading this novel was that it felt like a piece that had required a labored hand in research. Mind you, I’m extremely enthralled by cases like the Jack the Ripper killings. Chalk it up to my family’s dabbling in the criminal defense side of law, or that I’ve always been attracted to the morbid and gore elements of a grand story. Whatever the reason, I have read many, many articles and journals about the infamous Jack. The amount of real-life detail that was implemented into this novel to create the murders as accurately as Hunter does, is laudable. I could envision the same environments from I, Ripper that I did while reading actual newspaper articles from 1888 as well as some grossly detailed accounts and essays on the matter. Did I mention that Hunter’s bibliography further iterates this fact?
The last positive item I would like to mention is that this book is brilliantly British. Stephen Hunter, who is an American author, does a fantastic job of utilizing perfect British language and mannerisms, befitting the time period, to make the story amazingly authentic. Because he distinctly fits the language usage to the era of late 1800s, you get an array of really large words, and many other words that are not used as frequently now in modern day. There’s also an array of phrases that had a drastically different meaning back then than they do now. You have a lot of Irish folk who immigrated to Britain during the 1800s due to a largescale potato crop failure, causing The Great Famine in the 1840s. The vast majority of them were looked down upon and treated like outlaws. Lots of them tried to mimic London English and diminish anything that could give way to their Irish heritage (as is seen with Jeb) however. Sometimes it just comes out, whether in conversation or other form of mannerisms; you can’t help who you are. Hunter is really good at depicting this, especially in regards to our protagonist.
There were very few aspects about the book that I didn’t really care for. While I understand that Jeb is a man who is trying to obtain fame through his penned reporting of the incidents, I find his obsession with Sherlock Holmes to get slightly exhausting towards the end. In a way, it does play to the plot, assisting with the eventual wrap-up, but I still found it just a bit too drab for my liking. Our hankering reporter also likes to go on harangues as he’s trying to piece together his contemplations. He’ll start focusing on a particular theory, such as Jews being the rippers, and then will go on and on about why the Jews would be viewed as such but how he disagrees with the notion. Again, I find that it gives the reader an intimate look into his personality and how his brain functions. Yet, more often than not they feel way too long. The same point could have been made much sooner, all the while keeping with the tone and ambience of Jeb’s persona.
All in all, I, Ripper is a damn good piece of fiction. I’m saddened to see that many people did not like the book, whether the writing was too elaborate or the story’s pacing dipping here and there for effect, or they just found it downright boring. While I can completely understand that perspective, I feel that these are all of the features that makes this book as great as it is. Sometimes a slow book makes for a good book. It is definitely a novel that requires thinking and a little intellect. A small understanding of Europe’s history won’t hurt either, but this is not necessary by far. I, Ripper is far too underrated, in my entirely subjective opinion. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys a piece of fiction that isn’t afraid to make you use your brain, and to anyone who doesn’t mind a slower read for the sake of great storytelling; four and a half guts outta five.