Case Closed on Jack the Ripper?


I’m no Ripperologist, but it would be hard to to have gone online the past week without discovering that, once again, the identity of the world’s most notorious serial killer has been scientifically revealed. This time the Polish hairdresser Aaron Kosminski is the culprit, his DNA having been positively identified on a shawl belonging to Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes. The evidence comes out in a new book by Russell Edwards, and while we’ve been here before — Patricia Cornwell, anyone? — perhaps the case really has been cracked.

Out of curiosity I went down to the basement late last night and dug out Philip Sudgen’s monumental The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, which happens to be the only book I own on the subject, and re-read his chapter on Kosminski. For years following his retirement, Sir Robert Anderson, formerly Assistant Commissioner of the Met, dropped broad hints in his memoirs and elsewhere that the case had been solved and the Polish Jew responsible for the crimes had died in an insane asylum. While he stopped short of naming Kosminski, there is little doubt who he meant.

That  seems to make the latest revelation seem anti-climatic. Everybody on the force knew it was Kosminski, if Anderson is to be believed. But Sudgen doesn’t think Anderson is to be believed. He goes to great lengths dismantling the supposed case against Kosminski, even enlisting Winston Churchill (who savaged Anderson’s memoirs in the House of Commons, characterizing the Assistant Commissioner as a self-aggrandizing blowhard). By the time Sudgen is done it’s hard to take Aaron Kosminski seriously as a Ripper suspect. And yet, perhaps Anderson was right all along, despite Churchill, Abberline, Macnaghten — and for that matter Sudgen.

The advantage of being a reader and writer of crime fiction is not needing to rely on anything as pedestrian as scientific testing to arrive at a verdict. The Ripper case, as far as I’m concerned, has been solved ever since the publication of Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, in which Dr. Watson catches the celebrated consulting detective in the very act at Miller’s Court. (At least, I think he does. It’s been awhile since I read the book. What I do recall is that Dibdin’s pastiche made an awful lot of sense.)

You may object that Sherlock Holmes cannot have been the killer. He is, after all, made up. He’s just a fictional character. True enough. The thing is, after a hundred and twenty-odd years, not to mention countless books and movies, can’t the same thing be said more or less of Jack the Ripper himself?

Pick Yourself a Marsh Reed


I mentioned Robert Farrar Capon’s advice about walking yesterday, which comes from his excellent 1969 book An Offering of Uncles (awesome first edition cover art above). Not being much of a foodie, I’ve never gotten into his most famous book, The Supper of the Lamb, but my friend Luke wooed me with Uncles and now I’m hooked. Over at Relief Journal, I’ve written in a bit more detail about the significance of walking to Capon, in particular his advice that as you go, you pick yourself a marsh reed.

Our spaces are becoming more ephemeral as they become more virtual. We travel them without feet and without cars, too. Without bodies of any kind, we find ourselves “present” in places which have no actual location or landscape, places that exist nowhere but the server farm, where they are as apparent to the eye as thoughts are when you gaze at a brain.

You can read the whole post here: “Envy of Angels.”


The Life Peripatetic

Ferris Jabr writes in The New Yorker about “Why Walking Helps Us Think”:

Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.

My years of walking to think, of constant pacing, came to a close while I wasn’t paying attention. I can’t remember when I stopped or why. A treadmill was probably involved. A few months ago I started walking again, not an easy thing to do. What had once come naturally now felt artificial, forced. (It didn’t help that I had misgivings about the quantified self.) Still, I kept it up and now every day for an hour or two I find myself in “precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight,” though the ideas and insight have followed only grudgingly. So far.

Robert Farrar Capon recommended walking as an antidote to the physical dislocation of the modern world, a place whose manufactured landscapes are traveled by car, flattening hills and conveying us over meaningless distance in a climate-controlled cocoon. Whenever I find myself puffing halfway up a steep incline, baking in the sun, I remind myself that in addition to priming my mind for strokes of genius, I am combating disembodied modernity. It feels good.

What struck me most about Jabr’s piece, though, is the opening, in which he quotes Nabokov’s advice to the effect that Ulysses scholars ought to be plotting Bloom’s walks. In the early 90s, I did exactly that, never realizing I was following the great man’s advice. Reading (and finishing) Ulysses was a requirement for my grad course on Modernist British Lit, and I figured if I managed that, there was no way I’d write a term paper on anything else. But Joyce’s masterpiece is nothing if not written about. Finding a fresh angle seemed near impossible. So I used some maps of Dublin and mention of a blind man both Bloom and Stephen Dedalus notice as they walk to reconstruct their probably paths, with approximate time of day duly noted. I turned this in believing it was likely an original contribution to Joyce scholarship, then thought better and was satisfied with a passing grade. Now apparently the whole perambulation has been mapped via Google. Whether the blind man is on the chart, I don’t know.

A Failed Pilgrimage

This country doesn’t honor its literary greats. Those sirens would never have sounded in France.”

That was my thought listening to a police car race by during a recording of Flannery O’Connor reading her story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” aloud to a 1950s audience. I’m a francophile at heart, and as a writer prone to feeling under appreciated (most of us do), it’s pleasant to daydream about Gallic accolades, especially when I’m out of sorts following an eye-opening pilgrimage attempt at Andalusia, O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville, Georgia. I wrote about the experience and my subsequent distemper for Relief Journal. You can find the piece here: “Angry at Andalusia.”

The real beginning is carefully suppressed

Robert Farrar Capon reveals every novelist’s dirty little secret:

Books may begin well; authors do not. When an author sets out, he is only vaguely in possession of what he wants to say. [...] The real beginning of a book, therefore, is always carefully suppressed.

“What is writing for?” My latest post at Relief


Every month in 2014 I’ve written a short piece for the blog of Relief Journal, a literary mag I had a hand in starting a few years ago (I was the original fiction editor). This month I tried to work out why two common ideas about the goal of writing — that it should communicate clearly, and that it should awe the reader with its profundity — aren’t satisfying explanations of the process I love, and what a better (albeit metaphysical) description might sound like. The result: “What is writing for?”

Here’s the gist:

To me an unread story is a gesture of love left unconsummated.

Unrequited might seem a better word, but it’s not: there are books you haven’t read but for which you still feel affection. (Consider the American love affair with the Bible.) In some cases not having read the story keeps the love alive. The pages do not always contain what we’ve been led to believe.

As a reader I don’t seek consummation for reasons of clarity or mystification, although both sensations are part of the experience. What I look for is something closer to communion.”

And here are some of my earlier posts, in case you missed them:

The Good Apocalypse. A meditation on the paradoxical hope in our seemingly hopeless dreams about the end of the world.

Horror and Resurrection. One era’s glory becomes another’s fright. How a work of art, out of context, conjures all the wrong thoughts.

Reading Milton. Out Loud. In the Car. Poetry makes more sense when it’s read aloud … just don’t tell the kids.

My Kind of Clever. If you’re too subtle people walk right by without seeing the layers underneath. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Nothing in writing

Remember, young man, there are some things which should be done which it would not do for superiors to order done.”

–Abraham Lincoln, speaking to cavalry officer Lewis Merrill, whose decision to execute Confederate guerrillas in reprisal for the murder of a pro-Union man Lincoln condoned after the fact, though he had declined to approve the order in writing.

And here’s Joyce Cary’s narrator in Not Honour More, Captain Latter, explaining why one’s superiors (in this case Lord Nimmo) never put such orders in writing:

My God,” I said to Varney, “Don’t you see the racket? Who’s going to carry the can? … It’s the old game they played on us in Africa — the everlasting Nimmo game. The everlasting game they always have played — nothing in writing. Nothing definite — nothing you can pin on them afterwards. The verbal instructions gambit specifically invented for mugs like Tommies and coppers. Theirs not to reason why. Theirs to take it in the neck both ways.”

I picked out some Horween leather and had this journal cover made overnight.

For weeks I’d had the website of Springfield Leather Company open in my browser, since it’s one of the few sources online for Horween leather. Then I found myself in Springfield, Missouri and started wondering if there was any connection. Turns out I was literally down the street from the leather supplier, so I raced over for a look. It was worth it.


Rolls of Horween Chromexcel, Dublin, Essex, and more.

Rolls of Horween Chromexcel, Dublin, Essex, and more.

The problem is, I’m going to be on the road for the next few weeks. Carrying a rolled hide with me across country would be inconvenient to say the least. Plus, while I’m obsessed with quality leather goods, I have pretty much given up on trying to make them myself, even as a pastime. I wanted to buy some Horween leather … but what would I use it for?

Then inspiration struck. My writing journal is a Seven Seas Writer from Nanami Paper, and because I use the thing day in and day out, I bought a Gfeller skirting leather cover for the notebook. As luck would have it, though, I left home with only a few pages left in my journal, so I packed a new one for the pending switchover. I began the old journal in late October, and its 400+ pages include a lot of notes and outlines for Cartago, my most recent novel. Toward the end, it also includes the start of what may very well turn out to be my next book. In between are essential outlines I need while traveling.

Meanwhile the new journal is filling, and moving the leather cover back and forth between the notebooks got to be a pain almost immediately. Solution? Buy some leather to have a new cover made!

Pre-cut leather pieces for wallets, notebooks, etc. The large tan piece is Horween Essex.

Pre-cut leather pieces for wallets, notebooks, etc. The large tan piece is Horween Essex.

A few doors down from Springfield Leather is a shop called Norseman Custom Leather. When I walked in with four square feet of Horween latigo, I found Joe Ridinger hard at work reupholstering a limousine interior. Could he make me a journal cover? No problem. In fact, it was  ready for pick-up the next day.


While the fit and finish on the Gfeller cover is superior, the job cost just $30 — and did I mention it was finished overnight? We don’t really live in a world where you can choose leather, walk a few doors down, and have leather goods made to your specs. At least, I thought we didn’t. If you happen to be in Springfield, things work differently.

DSCF6334 DSCF6337Both of my notebooks now have a leather cover, and I look forward to comparing the way each one ages. My wife was so impressed with the result that she bought some golden-tan Horween Essex and is having a cover made for her own Seven Seas journal. I can’t wait to see how that one turns out.

When books stop taking up space in the world, will they stop taking up space in the mind?


Each year I spend most of the summer traveling, which leads to an annual dilemma: which books to bring. I wrote about the problem a number of years back for Comment: “I Know What You Read Last Summer.” Should I bring the books I want to read with me, planning deliberately, or should I live off the land, reading whatever I happen to find in bookstores as I travel? This is a similar challenge to that faced by campers planning an excursion into the wilderness — and to be honest, it’s part of the fun.

When I talk about this now, however, an increasingly number of reading friends propose a simple way of untying my Gordian knot: “Get a Kindle already!” they cry, wondering how I’ve managed to live so long into the twenty-first century without being told that the Physical Book is dead and we have killed it.

As a matter of fact, I have the Kindle app on all my devices, and I do read e-books from time to time. Whenever I take an interest in a new book and gather from online research that the physical edition is poorly designed or made, I opt for the e-book. I’m aware of the technology’s advantages both to readers and authors. From a reader’s perspective, e-books can be obtained quickly and carried everywhere, taking up no discernible space. The type size can be increased, the background color changed, and a limited number of other word processor-style adjustments are possible.

Even so, I find the form of digital books disappointing at this juncture, a fact I explain in more detail here: “The Form of Digital Books.” The fact is, I rarely need to read 1,000 books at once, having them all in my pocket hasn’t proven much of an advantage. Choosing a volume to carry and sticking with it has helped me finish a number of rewarding books I wouldn’t otherwise have persevered with. Also, when a physical book is well-designed and well-produced, the reading experience is more satisfying to me than reading the same book digitally. That’s not a condemnation of e-books, or a jeremiad against all things new. I’m just saying that, in my experience, the book is still better technology than the e-book for many applications. And if taking notes by hand is better for your brain than tapping them out on a computer, I can’t help wondering if the same is true about reading.

In addition to being a reader, I am an author. E-books are a godsend for my kind in many ways. They’ve fueled an explosion in readership, and at least in theory authors can earn more money on e-books than physical ones (a fact that has as much to do with the byzantine ways of publishing as with the difference in production cost between physical and digital books). The fact is, if you’ve read my books — and I hope you have — you probably did so on an e-reader. My e-book sales far surpass the sale of my physical books. Believe me, I’m grateful.

The books we want to hold in our hand, though, are the ones we really cherish, either because of the beauty of their form, or because of their content. I’d like to think I have readers who, having read my books in digital form, want to have them in the more tangible physical form, too. That’s how I behave as a reader: the books in the cloud don’t occupy the same prominence in my life (or for that matter, thought) as the ones in the room next to me, or the ones in my hand. Something about their physicality, their embodiment, makes them more real. They don’t go away when the power switches off.

I’m at peace with the notion that printed books are going the way of vinyl albums. They will become the exclusive domain of purists, appreciated more as fetish objects than as a practical means of conveying information. That doesn’t diminish my appreciation of them at all. And it doesn’t dampen my desire, when the circumstances are right, to travel with a finite number of heavy, printed books instead of the more portable and infinite digital alternatives.