Monday, 6 June 2011

Review of 'Random' by Craig Robertson

Random is the debut novel of Craig Robertson, the latest in a long and distinguished line of 'Tartan Noir' writers. He once said that the Scottish "seem to be better at... reach[ing] the darker side of the human psyche... Many Scots also have a fondness for black humour that lends itself well to crime writing," and these crucial ingredients are certainly present in this excellent book.
Glasgow is being terrorised by a serial killer the media have nicknamed 'the Cutter'. His random attacks appear motiveless until we learn of his fascination with that ultimate murderer, Jack the Ripper. This anonymous killer's study of the Ripper is only revealed in chapter 16, and he provides the reader with the usual salient facts of the infamous case: "Some said the Ripper was over-rated... In purely numerical terms [they are] probably right. But what they all forget, is that Jack got away with it. The single most famous serial killer in history yet still unknown.
Some people think they know who Jack was... but they... can't know. They call themselves Ripperologists... Ask ten [of them] who killed those women and you will get eleven different answers... Five prostitutes... Victims of life. Jack killed... ripped them. But we don't know why [or] who. They say he was Queen Victoria's whoring grandson Eddy... driven mad by syphilis... it was the Queen's physician William Gull... her obstetrician John Williams. He was painter William Sickert... he was Carl Feigenbaum, a German sailor. He was an insane Polish Jew, Aaron Kosminski. It was the Ripper diary confessor James Maybrick or the bogus doctor Francis Tumblety. It was barrister Montague John Druitt, the abortionist Dr Thomas Cream, the Polish poisoner George Chapman or [Mary] Kelly's lover Joseph Barnett. It was them and it was a hundred others but it was none of them. It was Jack. No one knows who he was. Jack did what [he] had to do then he stopped. Disappeared... back into the London fog."
We are then given our first clue to this killer's reasoning. Inspired by the Royal conspiracy, his fourth murder was actually motivated by revenge (the death of his daughter), and concealed amongst the other 5, which were truly random. The theory (advanced by Stephen Knight in 1976) is explained by this fictional killer: "It goes that 3 men worked together... Their plan... was to cover their true intentions by creating the myth of the Ripper. [They] were high establishment... connected to the Royal household and were set on protecting its interests... The bottom line is that... [Mary] Kelly knew too much and was prepared to tell. She had to be silenced. But the killing of Mary alone would have left a trail... motive could eventually have led [the police] to the truth. So the plan was devised... Kelly and her friends were slaughtered and the murders made to look the work of a complete madman. The silencing of Kelly was hidden amidst the other four. She was the needle. They were the haystack."
Robertson's random killer can see "the beauty of it... made to look like madness, but in reality it was clinical, reasoned... I respected the logic" enough to emulate it.
This murderer is not a Ripper copycat (see ITV's Whitechapel drama, and many more examples in written fiction for those [i]) but the media frenzy generated by the original Ripper, and the lure of an 18th century urban myth is strong enough to inspire news reporting even now. The contemporary newspapers christened and publicised the crimes of the Blackout Ripper (1942), Jack the Stripper (1964/5), the Camden Ripper (2000/02), the Ipswich Ripper (2006), and most famously the Yorkshire Ripper (1975 to 1980) and his hoaxer, Wearside Jack (1978/9). The Random killer taunts and manipulates the press as did the original Ripper via a series of letters 'From Hell'. He posts severed fingers to the police, then later to a reporter (also akin to the real Ripper's bloody parcel to George Lusk), and then dubs himself 'the Cutter' (just like the 'Dear Boss' letter signed by 'Jack') because he hates the media's nickname 'Jock the Ripper'. This name is also used by fellow 'Tartan Noir' writer, Val McDermid in Killing the Shadows (2001).
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Whitechapel murders was the birth of tabloid journalism (alluded to in From Hell as creating the 20th century), and their almost symbiotic co-existence. Murder was part of life in Victorian London, and the Ripper's crimes may have been forgotten by history if it wasn't for newspapers like The Star. This was the first time that such a story attracted such attention, and even in the absence of today's omnipresent media gathering, the Ripper quickly went global, and his influence has remained since.
We need to study the Whitechapel Murders in their wider context, not only the 5 canonical victims, but those committed between April 1888 and February 1891, to fully appreciate the 'power of the press.' This coverage has perpetuated for 123 years, and it only fuels the modern fascination with the world's most notorious murderer [ii] .
Later, the Cutter's potted history of Scottish murders could easily be observations by the author on the emergence and current success of Scottish crime fiction: "Scotland gave the world television and the telephone, penicillin, the pneumatic tyre, the steam engine and the bicycle, radar, insulin, calculus and Dolly the sheep. But we are also right up there with the best of them when it comes to killing people... The best small murdering country in the world. Stick that on your tourist posters." Tartan Noir is indeed part of this "fine tradition" and is a significant Scottish cultural export.

Notes [i] Unlikely Killer by Ricki Thomas features the 'Kopycat' Ripper, and in Michael White's The Art of Murder, another serial killer is actually inspired by Jack's secret journal. Here, the original Ripper escaped to America, a theory investigated at the time by both the police and a hungry press.
[ii] Channel Five documentary, Tabloid Killer (24/6/10) examines the massive press coverage of the Whitechapel Murders.

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