More than 100 years have passed since the Autumn of the Knife, when the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper terrorized the streets of London. Amy Carol Reeves, author of the YA Ripper trilogy, says, “writers and readers are drawn to this story because it’s a case that will never be solved,” leaving plenty of space for imagination. Such is the case with two new Ripper-themed books by celebrated historical crime novelists Stephen Hunter (Hot Springs) and Alex Grecian (The Yard).
Both, of course, begin with blood. Stephen Hunter’s brisk, gory epistolary novel, I, Ripper, combines the memoirs of an ambitious journalist with the Ripper’s secret diary. The journalist, an Irishman who goes by “Jeb” to protect his identity, warns readers straight away:
“Make peace now with descriptions of a horrific nature or pass elsewhere. If you persevere, I promise you shall know all that is to be known about Jack. Who he was, how he selected, operated, and escaped. . . . Finally, I shall illuminate the most mysterious element of the entire affair, that of motive.”
Hunter’s version of Jack the Ripper is a cold, verbose intellectual. Beginning with the first canonical Ripper murder of Mary Ann Nichols in 1888, it’s a well-researched retelling of history full of surprising revelations. Hunter’s 19th-century London is full of striking and authentic period details—including racism, class warfare and the treatment of Jews in Victorian England—but women are relegated to the alcoholic prostitutes at the other end of a knife. “I needed to puncture her more,” the Ripper says. “Why? God in heaven knows.”
In Alex Grecian’s fourth Scotland Yard Murder Club book, The Harvest Man, the Ripper returns to London after last wreaking havoc in The Devil’s Workshop. But in this installment, Jack plays second fiddle to a villain even more horrifying: the Harvest Man, who wears a medieval plague mask and slices the faces off his victims, continuously mistaking them for his parents.
“He stared intently at the mother and father, tried to gauge the shapes of their skulls beneath the masks they wore. . . . Those were features they couldn’t hope to hide from him. He had chosen the right people this time, his own parents, spotted among the teeming masses. He was nearly sure of it.”
The Murder Club regulars are back: Detective Inspector Walter Day, his old partner Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith, the forensic pathologist Dr. Bernard Kingsley and even their favorite criminal informant, Blackleg. More pulpy and hardboiled than I, Ripper, Grecian's newest trades Hunter’s intricate prose for snappy dialogue in another gripping Victorian team-up. Where Hunter excels at a carefully constructed, suspense-driven plot with clear ties to history, Grecian supplies a strong cast of beloved characters and great one-liners. Although, for the record, Hunter packs a few jokes in, too (“‘Can I say ‘belly?'’’ I asked. ‘It seems rather graphic.’”).
Unfortunately, female characters in both books are largely either victims or hero’s wives. “A surface reading of the case shows only Jack the Ripper, the all-male Scotland Yard investigators, and the female victims,” says Reeves. “But we have so many cases of extraordinary women like Aphra Behn who are under-recognized in history.” Regardless, both I, Ripper and The Harvest Man are frightening, well paced, effortless reads.