Mystery writers and readers have long been beguiled by Jack the Ripper. Numerous serial killers have upstaged the Ripper since his murders in 1888.
From Peter Kurten, the “Dusseldorf Vampire,” who began murdering in 1913 and killed at least nine before surrendering . . . to Belle Gunness, who slayed more than 40 men by luring them to her farm through lovelorn notices . . . to Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed, dismembered, and cannibalized 17 men from 1978-1991 . . . to H. H. Holmes, one of the first American serial killers, featured in Erik Larson’s terrific book, The Devil in the White City, to Albert DeSalvo, who was, in 2013, finally proven by DNA to be the Boston Strangler. Thank you, forensic science!
Still today Jack the Ripper holds us captivated and if one asks us to name infamous serial killers, his name will often be at the top of the list.
When I started researching Jack I told myself the reason was timing. The characters in an earlier book would land nicely in the Victorian era some twenty years later. But that was only one reason for my interest in Jack.
In truth, there were several motivations for pursuing him as an interesting subject.
First, the ambience of the time and place in which he killed. There’s nothing like a foggy, damp, dreary night in Whitechapel, London, to set the stage for murder.
Second, his Modus Operandi. He did not just kill his victims, all prostitutes apparently. He butchered them with ritualistic precision, leaving body parts exposed to the night.
Third, Jack did his work so quickly and efficiently, no one chanced upon him during his grisly task, nor bump into him following the murders. No witnesses.
Fourth, if the letters that the police received were authentic, Jack taunted them with his deeds. He made a mockery of their ineptitude, which gave the press a field day.
Fifth, Jack the Ripper was never caught. There were a number of suspects, including the grandson of Queen Victoria.
My other personal fascination with Jack and the time period centered around Sherlock Holmes, and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I always wondered why Sherlock never solved the case.
Hence, I did solve the case, with the help of Conan Doyle, and, jumping forward 120 years, the assistance of modern DNA technology, which zeroes in on Jack’s true identity.
Add a little imagination. I mean, really, could there have been evidence remaining from one of the Ripper murders?
In my award-winning mystery, Time Lapse, I resolve those questions. Are my solutions believable? Read it and let me know.
It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog, mainly because I’m deep in the heart of writing my seventh novel.
This book has been challenging. My first six mysteries take you back in time to a particular time and place. For instance Deadly Provenance brings you to Paris and World War II; Pure Lies to the Salem Witch Trials; and Time Exposure to the American Civil War.
My current book, whose working title is The Tree of Lost Secrets takes place in my hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont. Readers travel back to four different time periods, hence, four sets of new characters. Plus, in keeping with my tradition, a modern story which threads through all.
The four time periods and locations:
Italy, World War II, 1943
Halifax, Nova Scotia, World War I, and the great Halifax explosion, 1911
The Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War, 1856
The American Revolution, 1776
In my research I have come across some interesting and amusing material worth a mention here. For example, one of my characters in the section on the American Revolution is a real character named John André, a British spy who was also an actor, artist, and poet. I learned that André had Sometimes history astounds! a statue erected to him in the South Transept of Westminster Abbey, along with Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Tennyson, among others.
I was impressed. Out of curiosity, I wanted to read one of his poems. Here are a few verses from a poem he wrote called “Yankee Doodle’s Expedition to Rhode Island:”
From Lewis, Monsieur Gerard came,
To Congress in this town, sir,
They bowed to him, and he to them,
And then they all sat down, sir,
If that didn’t compel you, here’s one more snappy verse:
So Yankee Doodle did forget,
The sound of British drum, sir,
How oft it made him quake and sweat,
In spite of Yankee rum, sir.
Believe it or not, it can be sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy, which was written in 1755. Not to be confused with the Hollywood version sung by James Cagney.
In the end, André was hung for spying. Frankly, I think he should have swung from the gibbet for his poetry. Sometimes history astounds!
Mystery writers have a tough decision: how to kill their fictional victims. There are far too many ways to murder to mention here. (If you want unusual methods, watch Criminal Minds or Supernatural.) I’ll mention one way that was based on a sad but true story.
One of the more gruesome aspects to my research for The Triangle Murders was learning about defenestration. This nasty means of murder is the act of throwing someone out the window or from a high place. The term comes from two centuries-old incidents in Prague. The first in 1419 when seven town officials were thrown from the Town Hall, no doubt precipitating the Hussite War. The second in 1618, when two Imperial governors and their secretary were thrown from Prague Castle, sparking the Thirty Years War. The latter was referred to as the Defenestration of Prague.
Now, while there’s something appealing about throwing political officials out of the window, remember that when they hit the ground the results are quite grim.
Falling as a cause of death can be very effective. There are two ways a person can fall. A vertical “controlled” fall is when the person lands upright and feet-first. An “uncontrolled” fall is when some other part of the body hits the ground first ie: head or back. Not pretty.
The vertical fall is survivable up to about 100 feet, but an uncontrolled fall can be fatal at very short distances such as from a stepladder. With a controlled fall, the initial energy transmits through the feet and legs and spares vital organs. The uncontrolled fall, however, can cause massive internal and head injuries.
146 people, mostly young women, died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in New York City, on March 25, 1911. Many chose jumping out the ninth-story windows to escape the raging fire. Safety nets were ineffective and bodies crashed right through them. Strictly speaking, defenestration was not the cause of death because they were not pushed out the windows. However, the result was the same. Death by impact on a hard surface.
Unrecognizable bodies lay on the sidewalk along Greene Street, together with hoses, fire rescue nets, and part of a wagon. All were drenched by the tons of water used to contain and extinguish the fire. Photographer: Brown Brothers, March 25, 1911. Photo courtesy of Kheel Center, Cornell University, http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/
I use defenestration as the actual cause of death in another book Pure Lies. It’s a clean way to murder (no blood on your hands) and allows easy escape for the killer. There is the problem, however, of actually shoving someone who might be bigger and heavier than you out the window.
But that’s a story for another blog. Ideas welcome.
Writing historical mysteries is a juggling act. Writers must create a fictional plot with fictional characters around a historical time period with real people. . . and somehow suspend the readers’ disbelief.
Many writers of historical fiction choose a particular time period and stay with it. I’m thinking Anne Perry, Phillipa Gregory, Charles Todd. I, on the other hand, am intrigued by so many time periods, I skip around. Each of my mysteries takes place in a different place and time, which enables me to do the thing I love most: research. The risk, of course, is that I will know only a little about each time period as opposed to Anne Perry who knows a great deal about Victorian England.
Once I settle on a time period, I read and read and read about it. I visit the places in question, interview experts, historians, and read and read and read some more. By this time, I usually have a kernel of an idea for the plot and maybe even a character sketch or two.
Building fictional characters around authentic ones is key. Unless your character is transported from modern times to the past, he/she must act, speak, dress like the time period. In using real people from the time period, they must be as genuine to history as I can make them.
As the story develops and takes twists and turns on its own, I find I am bending the truth a bit–creating an “alternate history.” This is fiction, after all. For instance, my fifth book, Time Lapse, is a totally new take on the Jack the Ripper murders. Some think it’s an outlandish scenario, completely out of the realm of possibility, but since there have been hundreds of theories and books written on this serial killer, why not one more? The backdrop and many characters are authentic, but the story line meanders considerably from what we know to be historically accurate. Still, Jack has never been caught. What if my resolution is. . . never mind.
In fact, the questions I ask take the form of “what if” and I let my imagination run free. It’s a rare writer that can devise a plot line that hasn’t already been done. But even a clichéd plot can be made new and fresh with unusual twists, powerful characters and exceptional prose.
As I put the final touches on this fifth novel, I realize I am bending history to fit the story. That’s the advantage of fiction. And its strength.
Thank you to the readers and writers who responded to my query about a concept for my next book. Your input and my proclivity toward war(s) has helped me decide: I shall return to World War II. Instead of the Nazi confiscation of art and a missing Van Gogh painting as in my book, Deadly Provenance, I will focus on music and stolen music manuscripts. Working title: The Final Note.
Historical fact: Beginning in the early 1930s, edicts against the Jewish population began emerging in Germany. These edicts became increasingly distressing and disruptive, causing Jews to forfeit their businesses, their homes, their possessions. Slowly and inexorably they were impelled toward the Final Solution where they would forfeit their most precious commodity: their lives.
In 1933, a group of German Jews set up Der Jüdische Kulturbund, a cultural federation consisting of unemployed Jewish musicians, actors, artists, and singers. The Kulturbund, or Kubu, was created with the consent of the Nazis strictly for Jewish audiences. The Nazis cleverly permitted this association in order to hide its oppression of the Jews. The Kubu was illustrative of Jewish creativity in response to cultural exclusion.
The Kubu performed theatrical performances, concerts, exhibitions, operas, and lectures all over Germany, allowing Jewish performers to earn their livelihood, however scarce. Under the watchful eye of Sturmbannführer, Hans Hinkel, whose boss was Joseph Goebbels, Kubu survived for eight years performing for audiences that continued to diminish.
My research into the life of Jews at this time is only part of my work. Since the Kubu musicians were permitted to play only “Jewish” musical compositions, I will be researching music history during this period. In addition, my musician protagonist in the back story will be writing his own compositions. While I play the piano, I have little music theory background and have never written music.
Writers of historical fiction must become artists, teachers, police officers, lawyers, detectives, photographers, doctors . . . all manner of occupations in their novels. For this book I will become a musicologist. Well, I can only hope.
The stolen music manuscripts will lead to dire consequences when we fast forward to the modern storyline. Can the manuscripts be authenticated? Can we learn through modern science and technology, the attribution of these brilliant symphonies? My task is to find the answers.
Your ideas are welcome.
Writing mysteries is an exercise in pitting bad characters against good.
There are degrees of bad and good, of course, but in compelling stories, the bad character is often seriously, diabolically, dangerously bad. He (or she) will certainly have good points. He may be charming, clever, handsome, sympathetic, and have superior interpersonal skills–think Ted Bundy–but the reader learns soon that these are just a cover, enabling him to get close to people in order to do his dirty work.
I have used individuals in my books to play the villain. An art critic, a factory owner, a southern sympathizer, a rich landowner. In others, I have used a group (or blast, or den, or herd, or flock, or conflagration—see my last blog on word play) of baddies, ie: Nazis, where most folk will agree that it’s easier to count the good ones than the bad.
A “collective” villain makes for an interesting read. The Nazis, the hedge fund crooks, the greedy corporate thieves, the Republicans, the Democrats, the tax collectors, the CIA, the FBI, the police, lawyers, politicians, doctors . . . all can play the role of collective villains.
In the case of the Nazis, you expect evil. In the case of doctors, you may not. Anyone can be a villain. If your experience tells you Nazis are bad, a good Nazi will be an interesting character. Same is true in reverse for a doctor. Then you have the Nazi doctor and you won’t know what to believe. But I digress.
A good writer will build each character with good points and bad points that the reader will both admire and loathe. It’s a fine line to walk. If your reader loathes your character too much, he (or she) might put the book down.
In the case of the Nazis, there is, built-in, a sense of evil, danger, and villainy. And because Nazis were historically real, readers will have an innate sense of foreboding right from the first page.
Hence, my next book will return to the Nazis and World War II. The theme will be not be confiscated art . . . but stolen music.