Book review: I'm Jack - novel relives hunt for Yorkshire Ripper serial killer
By early 1978, the investigation by police in West Yorkshire, northern England, into the Yorkshire Ripper had reached breaking point. In March, a letter arrived for George Oldfield, the assistant chief constable heading the inquiry. Over the next 15 months, two more letters were sent, signed "Jack the Ripper", and a tape, purporting to be from the killer. The police changed course and focused on Sunderland, a city in northeast England, from where the communications came.
In late June 1979, the recording of "Wearside Jack" taunting Oldfield was broadcast to the public over and over again. Then on January 2, 1981, Peter Sutcliffe was arrested for having fake number plates on his car. The young woman he had just picked up from the red-light district had the luckiest escape of her life. Yet because of the concentration on Wearside Jack, Sutcliffe, the actual killer, who had by then been interviewed nine times by the police, was let free to murder three more women.
Oldfield retired from the case due to ill health in late 1979 and died in 1985. One of his tactical errors was the assertion that the killer craved publicity. Even as Sutcliffe's trial began, Oldfield still believed the letters and tape were linked to the murders. It was not until 2005 and random DNA testing that John Samuel Humble, a petty criminal in his late 40s from Sunderland, was identified as Wearside Jack, charged with perverting the course of justice, and jailed for eight years.
With his first novel, Blacklock provides forensic biographical details and compelling insights into Sutcliffe's crimes. He reconstructs Humble's epistolary style to develop the "relationship" between Wearside Jack and the now deceased police officer. Blacklock's Humble continues to address Oldfield in a mock-affectionate, softly menacing tone, with all the syntactical idiosyncrasies of Humble's original missives.
Should we be interested in Humble as a piece of cultural history, the 20th-century foil to his true fascination, Jack the Ripper? The women who Sutcliffe butchered so frenziedly, "the lasses" to whom Humble expresses his own careless misogyny, remain as mere ciphers . Apart from Pat Barker's exceptional 1984 novel Blow Your House Down and Joan Smith's essay "There's Only One Yorkshire Ripper", there has been little writing by women published on this topic. Instead, the Ripper story has become a relentless examination of male identity, of violence perpetually in bloom.
I'm Jack by Mark Blacklock (Granta)