How a Literary Novelist Became an Expert on Jack the Ripper
by Kim Wright
Last year, out of nowhere, my agent said to me “Have you ever considered writing a mystery series?”
I was surprised by the question but I think my answer surprised him even more.
I said “I think I may have already written one.”
Years ago, when I was in my twenties and my dream of being a writer was still far, far away, I had begun a mystery about Jack the Ripper. To give you some sense of the time flow, this was when I was on maternity leave with the daughter who has recently turned twenty-six. But strangely, I had kept the pitiful little first draft all these years and, even more strangely, when David asked me about the mystery it immediately flashed in my head where the manuscript was hiding.
I went out into the garage and opened one of those big Tupperware tubs I use to store old writing and… there it was. Just as I’d visualized it, in the bottom of the blue tub in the corner behind the lawn mower.
It looked like the Dead Sea Scrolls. The manuscript had been run off on a dot-matrix printer so the pages had those bumpy serrated edges and the print was so dim it was nearly illegible. The background research, both in terms of the Victorian era and the famously unsolved case of Jack the Ripper, was scanty; at the time I’d written the draft back in 1986 the Internet wasn’t available and I’d done my research at the local library with my baby strapped into a Snugli on my chest.
But, despite all this, the fundamental story was good.
I immediately set to work reconstructing the book and in the process I remembered how much I love doing research. My background is journalism so I’ve always feel comfortable digging up backstory, but my first novel, Love in Mid Air, was a literary novel, set in my present time and place. During the eight years it had taken me to write Love in Mid Air I was on my own, pretty much holed up in my room typing away and while I’m proud of the book that resulted, that much alone time wasn’t good for me. A historical mystery gave me the best of both worlds: the research of nonfiction and the freedom of fiction.
Pretty soon I became an expert on all the details of the Ripper case: the identities of the victims, the theories on who Jack might have been, the shaky forensics available to Scotland Yard at the time, the social mores which hampered the investigation. With the Internet you can layer in an insane amount of detail. How long would it have taken to cross the English Channel in 1888? What sort of petticoats would a society girl have worn? Did they understand fingerprinting or blood typing or even how to isolate a crime scene? What would a working class detective have eaten for lunch? With five minutes on Google I could answer any of those questions.
Of course an obsession with Jack the Ripper doesn’t come without consequences. Not only did my sleep become unusually troubled, but you can’t imagine what my recommendations queue on Amazon looks like now. One morning recently I awoke to an email that said “You might be interested in The History of Torture.” Tomorrow it will probably be Disembowelment for Dummies. I’m sure the FBI has a big file on me somewhere.
The result of all this research is my debut, City of Darkness, the first installment of the City of Mystery series. City of Darkness is about the Ripper case, which led to the founding of the first forensics unit at Scotland Yard. Subsequent volumes will have my new forensics team, who I think of as a sort of Victorian CSI, traveling to high-profile crimes all around the world: City of Light in Paris, City of Silence in St. Petersburg, City of Bells in Buenos Aires.
Building novels – which allow me to create characters and imagine scenarios that never existed – but building them around actual historical events, which are themselves rife with interesting details and glamorous settings, is the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer.
It’s even worth a nightmare now and then.