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Review: Cornwell's 'Portrait' thought-provoking

By L.D. Meagher

"Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed"
By Patricia Cornwell
352 pages

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(CNN) -- The cardinal rule of criminal detection was carved in stone more than a century ago. "It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence," Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes intoned. "It biases the judgment."

Conan Doyle extolled the virtues of forensic science and acute observation at a time when conventional police work had spectacularly failed. Just three years before he took up his pen, Jack the Ripper terrorized London.

Sir Arthur never set Holmes on the trail of the Ripper. He chose to leave the world's first known serial killer to the real-life Lestrades of Scotland Yard -- and to every amateur sleuth, mentalist, spiritualist and con artist that followed.

Patricia Cornwell is none of the above. A former reporter who once worked for a medical examiner, she's a founder of the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine. She's also a best-selling mystery writer. And she claims she knows who Jack the Ripper was.

Cornwell makes her case in "Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed." No murder-mystery theatrics here. She names her suspect on page 2: Walter Richard Sickert, once heralded as England's greatest living artist. During the Whitechapel horrors, however, he was a struggling young painter with a taste for the bawdy entertainments of London's East End.

Putting science to the test

For the first time, modern science is unleashed on Jack the Ripper's letters. The results raise an eyebrow. Several of them, in fact.

In the first place, some appear to be painted, rather than written with pen and ink. In the second place, watermarks on Ripper letters match those on Sickert's personal stationery. In the third place, chemical analysis shows the Ripper used artist's supplies on some of his missives.

Then there's the DNA analysis, which offers a link between the Ripper letters and letters from the Sickert household.

Cornwell offers an impressive series of crime-scene recreations. She captures the moment of each known Ripper victim's death in clinical detail. Indeed, she may understand what the police were seeing better than the police did. The term "forensic science" hadn't been coined in 1888, and Sherlock Holmes had yet to appear in print.

"The Ripper case is not one to be conclusively solved by DNA or fingerprints," Cornwell cautions, "and in a way, this is good. Society has come to expect the wizardry of forensic science to solve all crimes, but without the human element of deductive skills, teamwork, very hard investigation, and smart prosecution, evidence means nothing."

Making a case

There's a variation of the bromide known as "The Lawyer's Rule" that goes: When the facts are against you, argue the law. When the law is against you, argue the facts. When both are against you, call the other side names.

Cornwell seems to be heeding this advice, perhaps unconsciously. She brands Sickert a psychopath and documents his odd behavior -- long solitary walks, disappearing for weeks at a time, perceived cruelty to his second wife. She makes a persuasive case that Sickert was weird. An examination of his paintings is enough to support that conclusion (one is called "Jack the Ripper's Bedroom").

There's also anecdotal evidence he suffered a medical condition that rendered him sexually impotent. But calling him a psychopath does not make him one, nor does it make him Jack the Ripper.

Despite her stated disdain for evidence, Cornwell collects an impressive array of it. The analysis of the letters is particularly suggestive. She is to be commended for adding it to the body of information on the Ripper case.

Yet there seems to be something missing. She doesn't explain why her suspicions settled on Sickert in the first place. Perhaps she doesn't consider her own thought processes essential to the case against Sickert, and she may be right. But some illumination on the subject would help the reader understand if she is following the rule laid down by Holmes.

Meticulous research has produced a thought-provoking book. Cornwell makes the strongest case she can that Walter Richard Sickert was the fiend behind the Whitechapel murders. But he is beyond the reach of human justice. It is left to the reader to judge whether "Portrait of a Killer" stamps the Ripper case "Closed."

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