Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed, by Patricia Cornwell. Putnam. 352 pages. $27.95
Rich and vainglorious from writing blockbusting detective fiction, Patricia Cornwell has applied her considerable funds and fertile imagination to the realm of true crime, choosing, as she would, history's most celebrated case. Without troubling to consult, credit or contradict a wealth of investigation over the past 114 years, Cornwell claims to have finally caught London's legendary serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Grandiose pre-publication hype has her "100% sure," willing to "stake her reputation" that the works of Victorian artist Walter Richard Sickert should have hanged him on the gallows instead of on the walls of prestigious museums.
Poor Sickert! What about his reputation? A renowned Impressionist, thought by some to be the greatest painter between Turner and Bacon, disciple of Whistler, colleague of Degas, is transformed into a man so thoroughly vile that Cornwall would not likely see fit to create him as a credible character in one of her novels. With the Cornwell name dominating the dust jacket of a thick, authoritative looking book, Sickert doesn't stand a chance.
Cornwell's conclusion is based is on the wildest of speculation in the total absence of any kind of hard evidence -- old or newly discovered. Not that she didn't try.
Futile efforts to link Sickert and the Ripper with a DNA match included testing a surviving set of his overalls (Sickert's body had been cremated), and analyzing a huge stockpile of letters, generally regarded as hoaxes, from ripper case police archives. To the consternation of the art world, her search led to the destruction of one from Cornwell's collection of 32 Sickert paintings, said to have cost $4 million.
DNA failed. Nevertheless, Cornwell thinks it probative that three of the letters were written on stationary with the same lettermark as writing paper from the Sickert household; and that others often contained the expression "Ha, Ha." That's significant, writes Cornwell, because Sickert's mentor, Whistler, had that noisome guffaw Sickert would have heard in their studio.
It makes no matter that Sickert's handwriting (he wrote a lot) doesn't resemble any on the Ripper letters. He was a genius at disguise, she claims, which also explains why his benign good looks failed to fit the varying descriptions of witnesses who thought they had seen the Ripper.
Turning selected Sickert paintings into Rorschach tests, Cornwell sees mutilations on the side of a woman's face that is in shadow. On a painting which has within it a picture of a diva draped in a feather boa, she believes she detects a man looming behind the diva "whose face begins to look like a skull." No matter that computerized image enhancement failed to confirm her vision.
Cornwall is not geared to citing sources, so a reader cannot, for example, evaluate the validity of her insistence that Sickert's sex organ was mutilated or missing; Instead, Cornwell diverts with pages of interesting expertise about "fistulas" and the traumatic ordeal Sickert could have undergone. But how could she possibly document florid declamations like this: "if any part of Sickert's anatomy symbolized his entire being, it wasn't his penis. It was his eyes."
In a recent New York Times interview, Cornwell laments that she took less than half of her usual $9 million advance because nonfiction doesn't have the readership her crime novels do. She was cheated.
Elsbeth L. Bothe retired from Baltimore Circuit Court after 18 years as a judge trying serious criminal cases, many of them murder. Her sizable library includes many of the hundreds of books on the Ripper case. She also collects skull and skeleton artifacts.