Here’s a book that delivers on its title. “The Big Book of Jack the Ripper” runs to over 800 jumbo pages and more than 50 entries. And even those numbers don’t say it all. Harking back to the pulp magazines in which some of these tales first appeared, the text is laid out two columns to a page. The sum total of printed words is prodigious.
It’s all based on fact, albeit not many hard-and-fast ones. For a few weeks in 1888, an unknown sicko terrorized the notorious Whitechapel neighborhood of London, using a knife to kill and mutilate a number of prostitutes — at most 11, and perhaps as few as five. Why, Jack the Ripper’s a piker next to 21st-century serial killers, who slaughter dozens of victims, sometimes within a matter of minutes. But it wasn’t the tally that gave Jack his perverse immortality. He lives on because of his defiance (he allegedly sent taunting letters to the police); his viciousness (he cut up his victims in unspeakable ways); his catchy name, which he seems to have coined himself in an early example of pop-culture branding; and his elusiveness. He was never caught; the murders simply stopped.
This is the latest Big Book brought to us by the venerable Otto Penzler, who is also the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York. Other titles in the series include “The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories ” and “The Big Book of Adventure Stories ,” but Jack gets special treatment. Unlike the other Bigs, which limit themselves to fiction, this one leads off with several nonfiction pieces that summarize and interpret what we know or surmise about Jack and his crimes.
This section contains one of the strongest pieces in the anthology, a sifting of the evidence by former Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter . Hunter became an expert on the case — a Ripperologist in insider’s parlance — while working on his most recent novel, “I, Ripper.” One of the many unanswered questions about Jack is: Who was he? Suspects ranged from low-life madmen to a royal duke. Without giving away Hunter’s well-argued solution, let me just say that the title of his essay, “Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick,” hints at the approach he takes.
In the book’s much larger fictional portion, we find short stories, novellas and a novel (Marie Belloc Lowndes’s “The Lodger,” on which Alfred Hitchcock based his 1927 film of the same name). Just about any variation on the Ripper legend you can imagine crops up here. Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper. Jack back from the dead. Vampire Jack. Jack wannabes. Jack at the old Grand Guignol Theatre in Paris. And much, much, much more.
Perhaps the most prestigious writer to grace these pages is Isak Dinesen, the Great Dane of fablelike storytelling; her contribution, however, is more admirable than exciting. The truth is that, no matter how you slice him (sorry about that), Jack is pulp material, and Dinesen had no gift for pulp.
Much more enjoyable is “The Decorator,” a novella by the contemporary Russian mystery writer Boris Akunin. One explanation for the end of Jack’s murder spree is that when London got too hot for him, he fled the country and transplanted his franchise to a new metropolis. In “The Decorator,” the unlucky city is Moscow, home to a police detective named Erast Petrovich Fandorin, who is head-turningly handsome, devilishly clever and “rarely mistaken.” He persuades reluctant informants to talk by first determining what psychological type they belong to, then exploiting that type’s characteristic weakness. This approach is less cumbersome than it may sound because “there weren’t all that many types — according to Erast Petrovich there were exactly sixteen, and there was an approach for each of them.” We get to see Fandorin apply his method to a “tortoise,” or introvert. The right move with such an opponent is to “show your belly”: that is, portray yourself as unthreatening, convince the other guy that “you and I are berries from the same field, we speak the same language.” To me at least, this flim-flam is pulp at its finest.
As for “The Big Book” as a whole, it can get a bit monotonous if read industriously — the same cloth sewn into one suit of clothes after another. Take your time, dip in and out, put the book aside for a while and then come back to it. And I’m sure you won’t lose sight of the fact that, entertaining as these stories are, Jack the Ripper was a pathetic and loathsome human being.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
Edited by Otto Penzler
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. 825 pp. Paperback, $25.