Despite happening over a hundred years ago, the six killings over the autumn of 1888 that were attributed to Jack the Ripper continue to hold a powerful grasp over our collective imaginations. While not the first serial killer in history, he was the first to have his crimes sensationalised by the media of the day, and the first to be given a nickname. Hundreds of books, articles and films have been produced speculating as to the identity and motive of the killer, and are still being produced – the study of this particular series of crimes has even spawned its own name: “ripperology”. I am far from being a ripperologist, but do have an interest in true crime and have read a number of books about Jack in the past. The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper is something quite different from other things I have read, however.
In 2007, TV and radio museum owner Alan Hicken bought a box of memorabilia from an elderly woman. This woman was a relative of Sydney Hulme Beaman, the creator of a popular 1920s children’s radio series called Toytown, which starred Larry the Lamb; in his day he had the same sort of fame and reputation as Enid Blyton came to later have, and so a selection of his original material, illustrations and writings would be an excellent acquisition for the museum. However, amongst this box of items was one very strange manuscript. In an “explanatory note” attached to the front of the manuscript, Hulme Beaman had written that the document came to him when he was acting as the executor of the will of a man he knew called James Willoughby Carnac. Carnac had apparently left it sealed up and addressed to him, with instructions that the executor was to send the package to a specified literary agent and request that it be published posthumously. Not wishing to cause problems with probate, Hulme Beaman opened the package to check its contents. It is unclear whether the package was later sent out and rejected for publication; if Hulme Beaman declined to send it out as instructed, or if indeed the man wrote it himself. Whichever is the case, the contents of the package are reproduced faithfully in this book.
Divided into three sections, the manuscript is apparently the autobiography of James Carnac and sets out to tell how he became the man we know as Jack the Ripper. In the first section, we are told of Carnac’s early life: his strict schooling, the gruesome death of his parents, and the growing bloodlust that drives him to fantasise about killing someone with a knife. He tries to satisfy his desire to cut flesh by becoming a medical student, although after nearly giving in to his desires to kill the kindly uncle who took him in after he was orphaned, Carnac drops out of his studies and runs away to live as a gentlemen of independent means on the money he inherited from his father. Despite the author’s repeated (and perhaps telling) claims that he is no trained writer, the quality of the prose reads well enough, and there is sufficient interest and good enough pacing to make this an enjoyable read.
“…it is a book to be recommended to those who find the Jack the Ripper case enduringly fascinating.”
Part two gets on to what should be the meat of the book: Carnac’s tale of how he murdered six women in Whitechapel over a three month period. The build up to and committal of the first murder continues to be interesting; the plans laid and experiences of Carnac during this act, and his concerns that he has made a mistake and will be caught remain detailed and quite convincing. However, the rest of this section is disappointing, as it is cursory, contains some minor inaccuracies and provides no explanation for why he escalated from killing to disfiguring the bodies of the last victims. We also hear very little of the killer’s reaction to finally committing the act to which he has so long been drawn, which leaves things feeling a bit flat. We do, however, get a reasonable and practical explanation for why the escalating murders so abruptly stopped. In his covering note, Hulme Beaman tells us that he removed and destroyed some parts of the manuscript that he found particularly distasteful – despite the fact that the typing is continuous and shows no such evidence of censorship. So, could he have removed some of these parts about the details of the crimes committed and then retyped the rest of the document for some reason? It seems unlikely.
The third part is stranger still. Apparently written 40 years after the crimes took place, this shows us Carnac threatened by discovery but ultimately hoist by his own petard. It is finished off by the coroner’s inquest into the death of Carnac, which would have rounded things of nicely if it were not for the fact that it was apparently written by the same typewriter that produced part 3 (a different one to that which produced the other two parts). The tale told by this part of the manuscript is too neat to be real life, and as ripper expert Paul Begg notes in his brief analysis at the end of “autobiography”, it cannot really be anything other than a work of fiction. But the questions still remain – were the preceding two parts also fiction or were they truly the confession of Jack the Ripper? Was the author of part 3 the same as parts 1 and 2? Did Sydney Hulme Beaman write this work (which is markedly different from anything else he wrote and by all accounts completely out of character for him) or was it someone else? No historical trace can be found of a James Carnac in London at this time, so if someone else, then who?
Whatever the answer, this is a very intriguing book, and one which is bound to have appeal not just to ripperologists, but also to other readers with interest in true crime or even early 20th century horror writing (if you believe the entire thing is fiction of course). I would have liked a bit more substance to the appended analysis of the manuscript, but even as it stands it is a book to be recommended to those who find the Jack the Ripper case enduringly fascinating.
The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper by James Carnac
Published by Bantam Press, January 2012
With thanks to the publishers for providing this review copy.
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