May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
January 18, 2012
Crime fiction has both the opportunity and the obligation to be the most political of any writing or any media, crime itself being the most manifest example of the politics of the time. We are defined and damned by the crimes of the times that we live in. The Moors Murders, the Yorkshire Ripper, and the Wests, Rachel Nickell, Jamie Bulger, and Stephen Lawrence: I strongly believe that these crimes and their victims, these investigations and trials (or lack thereof) did not just happen to anyone in anyplace at anytime: they happened to very specific people in a very specific place at a very specific time and this is what crime fiction should be documenting, these dispatches from the front; because we are constantly at war and there are some very, very bad people on the rise. (David Peace)
If the detective is a Modern invention–possible only (as Howard Haycraft asserts) in a society where a formal police have been established–then the serial killer must be his dark shadow. Not that there were no serial murderers before the Industrial Revolution (though generally they were called monarchs); but it was only, it seems, with the mass movement into cities during the nineteenth century that the serial killer as we imagine him today emerged.
Space does not permit me to explore why that happened, but if (as Peace suggests) murders occur in specific places at specific times, it can hardly be an accident that—one year after Sherlock Holmes made his debut in A Study in Scarlet—the world of Victorian England was shocked by the Ripper murders. These crimes, committed in the disreputable section of London known as Whitechapel, were unprecedented in their randomness and their ferocity. We do not know for certain how many women were killed by the Ripper—the number lies somewhere between five and eighteen—and, most terrifying of all, we do not know who Jack the Ripper was. He ceased his activities as suddenly as he began them, vanishing like a nightmare.
The significant thing about Jack the Ripper, according to Colin Wilson, is his detachment:
Bernard Shaw said jokingly that the killer was probably a social reformer who wanted to draw attention to the appalling conditions in the East End of London; but the comment was more apposite than he realized […T]he most significant thing about [Jack the Ripper] was that he felt totally separated from society. Like Lacenaire [a murderer described by Wilson as the first with “a grudge against society”], he probably experienced a state of detachment, a sense of unreality, which vanished only when he killed or daydreamed about killing. Although he was probably indifferent to the social conditions in the East End of London, he was nevertheless an extreme product of Marx’s ‘alienated’ society. (Wilson 486)
It’s a significant fact that the serial killer is characterized by detachment and alienation—the very qualities that make Holmes the hero of his tales. This paired set—the fictional detective and the all-too-real killer—seems to be a picture of both the dangers and the promise of the world of the 19th century. The fact that detective and serial killer enter the scene hand-in-hand is interesting, and perhaps reflects something about the Jekyll/Hyde relationship industrial (and post-industrial) society has with itself. I’m no historian of the era, so any suggestions I make on that score would be tentative at best, but if the detective is the (symbolic) representation of the society’s faith in order, then it could be said that Jack the Ripper and his offspring are the (all too real) expressions of uncertainty, of doubt, of fear that the good order might not be so good after all.
Given the close connection between the two, it’s inevitable that Holmes should come into contact with Jack the Ripper. Oddly, Doyle never felt the need to pit his hero against the quasi-mythical murderer. Though we see Holmes dealing with spectral hounds of hell and wrongdoers of all sorts, not once in his many adventures does Holmes confront the Ripper or a Ripper-analogue. That task has been put to the many hundreds of Doyle’s successors; in print, it would seem that Holmes has battled the Ripper or exposed the Ripper or been the Ripper more times than can be counted.
On film, too, Holmes has done battle with his darkside mirror—most notably in 1965’s A Study in Terror and 1979’s Murder by Decree. The former is mostly forgettable. It certainly attempts to deal with the poverty-stricken condition of the East End, but these conditions are sanitized, and the solution to the Ripper killing leaves much to be desired. When Jack the Ripper is unmasked in A Study in Terror, it is clear that (a) he is insane, and (b) he is an aberration, what Dickens called “a terrible wonder apart.” There is little indication that his pathology might arise from the very society in which he moves (specific time, specific place). The late John Neville provides an adequate, if very traditional, take on Holmes, but he’s hampered by his Watson (Donald Houston)—a performance that makes Nigel Bruce look like Jude Law. The best thing about A Study in Terror is Robert Morley as Mycroft Holmes. He was, undoubtedly, born to play the role. It’s a shame the filmmakers don’t give him more to do.
Murder by Decree is a far superior effort. Christopher Plummer plays a humanized Holmes—not quite the cold, detached reasoning machine we find in the Canon—and James Mason is a marvelous Watson. The prostitutes seem more realistic—dirty, repulsive, desperate—and the game Holmes finds himself stalking is far bigger. The film suggests that Jack the Ripper is a creation of his society. The result is hardly perfect; certainly it doesn’t reach the level of political criticism that David Peace suggests in the quote at the beginning of this essay. With all its flimflam about Masonic conspiracies and Anarchists and illegitimate heirs, Murder by Decree is far from realistically considering why Jack the Ripper emerged at the precise moment in history that he did. But the movie does succeed—where A Study in Terror fails—in suggesting that, whenever these crimes emerge, they do so as the result of a deeper sickness. The righteous anger Holmes displays during his final speech (spoilers, obviously) does implicate the entire social fabric—establishment and anarchist—in the Ripper killings.
What we have here is the detective once more taking on a prophetic role. Conventional wisdom suggests that the murder at the heart of detective fiction represents an aberration—a principle of nonconformity that must be suppressed. I do not want to deny this aspect of the genre, but Murder by Decree suggests a more radical observation: that crime and wrongdoing are not isolated instances of disorder. They are part of society itself. They are symptoms of a deep malaise at the heart of the human experience (which we might be tempted to call “sin”)—a deviation that implicates everyone. David Peace calls attention to this as a political move, and indeed it is. But it’s a politics far beyond our usual understanding of Left/Right, Liberal/Conservative, Whig/Tory or any other division you could name. For politics is the business of the polis–it’s asking what kind of city we are and what kind of city we want to be.
And so, when Holmes stands at last in front of the minds behind Jack the Ripper’s activities, when he unmasks the murderer and names the guilty parties (the two are not the same), he is making a political statement. Murder by Decree still pulls its punches—Masons and degenerate royals are convenient targets. There is little indication that Holmes himself might be part of the kind of society that gives murderers like Jack the Ripper room to develop. Still, when we compare it to contemporary serial killer movies (even very good ones like Silence of the Lambs) its conclusion is startlingly chilling. The serial killer, it seems to say, is no “terrible wonder apart.” He is—in some sense—us. We all contribute to his creation. If this is an uncomfortable assertion, keep in mind that the role of the prophetic is largely to make us uncomfortable.