Showing posts with label David Morrell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Morrell. Show all posts

26 August 2015

The Whitechapel Murders

David Edgerley Gates

What is it about Jack the Ripper that continues to excite our collective imagination? The murders took place in 1888, after all, a hundred-and-twenty-five years ago. Everybody involved is long dead, the victims, the surviving witnesses, the cops, the newspapermen, the actual killer.


Well, foremost, the case has never been solved. There's an enormous canon of literature devoted to it. If you go the Ripper casebook website, http://www.casebook.org/, they name over a hundred possible suspects.

Secondly, it's widely considered to be the first documented serial killer case - although this in isn't true. Jack, however, generated a boatload of newsprint, and the image of a demented vivisectionist stalking Whitechapel for unlucky whores took hold.

More particularly, though, it probably is the first case to involve criminal profiling. In the late 1800's, forensic psychiatry didn't exist. Forensics of any kind, crime scene analysis, was primitive. Preserving the chain of evidence wasn't even on the radar. But in the Ripper case, a police surgeon speculated the killer was a
solitary, subject to periodic attacks of erotic mania, a "brooding condition of the mind." In other words, they were taking a stab (no pun intended) at ascribing motive. Jack wasn't simply possessed by evil spirits, he was diseased, as it's commonly understood. Mentally ill. Not an attempt to excuse his crimes, it was a means to an end. If they could isolate the Ripper's logic, they might identify him.

A couple of recent mystery thrillers explore this dynamic, David Morrell's MURDER AS A FINE ART (and its sequel, INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD), and Stephen Hunter's I, RIPPER. Morrell's book isn't about the Whitechapel killings, but a guy mimicking the Ratcliffe Highway murders, which took place seventy-odd years before the Ripper. Hunter's book, as you can tell from the title, is very much about Jack.

It's interesting that two not entirely dissimilar writers have both chosen to do historicals, and Victorian era historicals, at that. I understand the attraction. It's also interesting that both Hunter and Morrell come at it from a somewhat similar perspective. Not a modern one, mind. There's nothing a-historical or anachronistic about their approach. But the period they've chosen is one of huge impending change. The coming of rail travel, say, the Industrial Revolution in full cry. Income disparity, the crushing burden of poverty, the displacement of populations and the rise of dense urban environments. All of this contributes to the rise of a phenomenon like the Ripper. And what the two writers both do, entirely convincingly, is to work out how you'd look for a killer's footprint, the shadow he casts. This is forensic science before it had a name. Reading the runes, or bottling smoke.

When we talk of Dickensian squalor, it's really a kind of shorthand, and an avoidance mechanism. It's hard for us to imagine how squalid and brutish life in the London slums actually was, in Victorian times. Social inequities were extreme, and the Ripper became a metaphor - a gentleman, it was said, preying on the weakest of the underclass. Jack embodies a nameless dread, an entire ruling class of predator. He prefigures, not the Ted Bundys of this world, but gangster capitalism. He represents a stacked deck.

Why was he never caught? Police incompetence, for openers. They weren't equipped to deal with somebody like Jack. Yes, he was a pattern killer, and there was method, and opportunity, and most importantly, repetition, but the cops never established his template, and he slipped the noose. Then again, there's the more sinister theory that Jack was a member of the Establishment, some go so far as to say a collateral cousin of the Royal Family, and a scandal had to be prevented. Because we have the lingering question of why the murders stopped. Maybe they found the guy, but his social position protected him, so instead of going for a short dance on a stiff rope, he wound up in the booby hatch. Which might go some way toward explaining why Jack has such a long shelf life. He eludes us. Not simply because it's the most studied of cold cases, and unresolved even today, but because he himself seems written in water.

Not so, his victims, In death, they have a disturbing physicality, exposed to the naked eye. Mary Jane Kelly was the last of the five, and a police photograph exists, the disemboweled girl lying in her bloody sheets. You can find the picture at the link below, but I won't post it here.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_the_Ripper#/media/File:MaryJaneKelly_Ripper_100.jpg



22 March 2015

Keeping It Real

by Leigh Lundin

Shimmer by David Morrell
SleuthSayers has entertained open-ended discussions by readers and writers about when (and whether) to use actual place names. This decision ultimately comes down to the rĂ´le location plays in a story and the inclinations of the author. Recently, I came across an example where I wondered why a popular author chose not only to fabricate (or ‘re-imagine’) a real place, but real people.

A friend gave me a tattered copied of Shimmer by thriller author David Morrell, a writer admired by our own David Edgerley Gates. Suffused with a Dean Koontz-like inexplicable supernatural presence, its genre is difficult to classify– not exactly science fiction, not paranormal, not quite a crime novel.

The premise draws a reader in: without explanation, wife leaves cop husband, stops en route to her mother to visit a ‘lights in the sky’ phenomena, and subsequently all hell breaks loose. Although this mysterious phenomenon exerts an amorally moral force over people and events, it remains unexplained, which happens to work in this case.

Morrell would probably agree Shimmer isn’t his best novel, but it’s worthwhile. Initially the novel’s speech tags disconcerted me. Although I’m not overly religious about them, I’m with the group that tries to avoid speech ‘assists’. For the first few chapters, my eye stopped every time I encountered one until the plot eventually captured my attention and moved on. And that’s the hallmark: capturing a reader’s attention.

People, Places, and Things

Giant
The West Texas town of Rostov had a genuine feeling that made it seem it was based upon a real community. At times authors base locales on real settings but, because of minor liberties with details, change the names. Rostov felt like that.

The story referred to a movie ‘Birthright’, filmed in that area. By the second mention of its actor James Deacon, I began to wonder if the author was making an oblique reference to James Dean, if Birthright was actually the 1956 film Giant, and if ‘Rostov’ was Marfa, Texas. Each subsequent revelation convinced me ‘Deacon’ was a stand-in for Dean, finally confirmed in the afterword. Indeed, most of the details (except the age of Rock Hudson) appeared to be accurate.

Bear in mind these were passing mentions, not actual characters. So why invent James ‘Deacon’ when we could have learned details about James Dean himself? Why indeed?

Compare and Contrast

Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean
When I was a kid, I read Alistair MacLean’s novel, The Guns of Navarone, inspired by the actual Battle of Leros following the fall of Rhodes in the Dodecanese Campaign. One of the central characters was a New Zealand adventurer in his early 20s, a WW-II soldier and world-class mountaineer, chosen to scale the impassible south cliff and sabotage an impregnable Nazi fortress.

Not long after, I read about the conquering of Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand adventurer in his early 20s, a WW-II veteran and world-class mountaineer… Wait, Navarone… Was that character’s name the same?

I went back to The Guns of Navarone and realized MacLean had named his hero Mallory, not Hillary, but it became clear Mallory was patterned upon the gentleman from New Zealand.

Interesting, especially since I thought this ‘semi-verisimilitude’ worked better in The Guns of Navarone than it did it did in Shimmer. Why?

Unfair Comparison

At the time of MacLean's writing, Sir Edmund Hillary was still alive. While one can legitimately refer to a living public person, casting them as a full-fledged character would be a highly dubious undertaking. Alistair MacLean simply used Hillary as a prototype.

In Shimmer, David Morrell mostly alluded to Deacon in bits of semi-historical trivia. Since references to the real James Dean would have served equally well– no, better since the audience might have learned something– why didn’t the author simply name the actual person?

Writers Bloc

I can’t answer for the author, but beginning writers might find the choice confusing. A Facebook self-publishing group is convinced HUGE LEGAL BARRIERS don’t allow mention of any real person at all, not Albert Einstein nor Martin Luther King or a not-so-real Ronald McDonald, without invoking lawsuits and huge fees, and God help them if they whisper the name Elvis™ or Marilyn™, intellectual properties owned by The National Enquirer. They know this because a cousin of an aunt whose friend worked in a cocktail lounge and wrote about JFK suffered CIA reprisals and, ratted out by ‘traditional publishers’, had to pull her book off Amazon. Okay, I exaggerate… slightly.

Writers are pretty safe referring to public figures as long as they stop short of outright libel. But I also suggest keeping one’s biases in check. I recall a novel that depicted Jimmy Carter improbably abusing White House servants, a political prejudice where an author’s distaste became authorial bad taste.

So what’s your take? If an author wants to refer to historical events and persons, should they fabricate pseudonyms for real people? And if so, why?

24 December 2014

Away in a Manger

David Edgerley Gates


I stopped being particularly religious about the age of fifteen, but Christmas still casts a spell. There's something about the narrative. "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." (St. Luke) The rhythms of the King James have enormous grace. They may not reflect the Aramaic, or its later translation into Greek, which is what those English guys in the early 1600's were working from, but I don't think it matters. The same is true of the Anglican version of the Book of Common Prayer, also revised under the same roof, by James I. Whether or not you follow the doctrine is beside the point. What counts is the cadence of the language, its discipline and ambition.

Years ago, I'd go with my mom to the Christmas service of lessons and carols at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. it was a somewhat severe venue, low-end Episcopalian, with the names of Harvard men who'd died in the world wars engraved in panels on the walls, a chill presence, bearing witness to their sacrifice, but at Christmastime the church was decorated with a lot of warmth, holly boughs and aromatic pine swags and poinsettias, all brightened with candlelight. It was comforting. And the familiarity, too. O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Good King Wenceslas looked out (I always finished the verse mentally with on his feets uneven, a nod to Walt Kelly). The effect on me wasn't ceremonial, but a conjured myth of childhood, surrendering to innocence. I've got no argument with sentimentality. Sentimentality's okay by me.

Suppose, on the other hand, that we cast a colder eye on the narrative, and give it a more sinister spin. David Morrell, in THE SPY WHO CAME FOR CHRISTMAS, does a little back-to-front, where the guy retells the Nativity as an espionage story. This works pretty well, if you think about it. The circumstances of a clouded birth, then the Flight into Egypt, to escape Herod's assassins, the boy later apprenticed to his carpenter father, God's witness protection program. (What did Joseph imagine in all this, anyway? He didn't knock the girl up.) The kid's head gets turned - John the Baptist an active recruiter for some as yet unnamed spook outfit, so to speak - and the Nazarene starts to preach sedition. Jesus, in effect, mounts a false-flag operation, and draws Rome's attention away from Barabbas, who by all accounts is politically more dangerous and puts his money where his mouth is. In this reading, Jesus of Nazareth is the Lee Harvey Oswald, a patsy, or a stalking horse, and not the hero at all. I know this is irreligious, of course, but why spoil a good story for lack of the facts?

Well, enough of that nonsense. Taken at face value, unto us a child is born - no room at the inn, the shepherds tending their flocks by night, the journey of the Magi - it still works its magic. You don't have to believe it's the hand of God, necessarily. Probably doesn't do any harm, either. The hopes and fears of all the years. We bring a lot of baggage to any story. Maybe we bring more to this one than most. It's an investment. We all believe in a child's native innocence. The loss is our grief. If, for sake or argument, we don't know the story's end, but only how it begins, then the birth of Christ is the stirring of hope. We embrace the myth because it's our own, each of us born, each of us begun. Destiny waits to be chosen.


http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

10 September 2014

Resurrection Men

by David Edgerley Gates


Ian Rankin published his thirteenth Inspector John Rebus novel, RESURRECTION MEN, in 2002. The story is about a group of cops in a rehab facility - sent down in disgrace because of alcohol or domestic violence issues, or they've fallen afoul of Internal Affairs - but being Rankin, the book is of course about a lot more than that. The title is double-edged, a turn of phrase with a dark history.


In the early 19th century, medical schools relied on the dead bodies of executed criminals for anatomy studies. It was illegal, in that day and age, to leave your body to science. but the supply began to dry up, and it gave rise to a trade in fresh cadavers, and the graves of the newly buried were dug up by body-snatchers, who sold the dead for necropsies. They were known as Resurrection Men. 



Two of these entrepreneurs, Burke and Hare, resident in Edinburgh in late 1827, improved their market share by skipping exhumation and turning to murder. Their victims were the derelict, the sickly, women of the street - people who wouldn't be missed. Over the course of the next year, they killed at least sixteen people, and shopped their corpses to a surgeon named Knox, to use in his anatomical lectures. How much Knox knew, or suspected, is an open question, but certainly he turned a blind eye. After they were caught, Hare turned King's Evidence, in return for immunity, and Burke was hanged. His body, as it happens, was then publicly dissected at the University of Edinburgh. Knox, the doctor, was never prosecuted.


"A wretch who isn't worth a farthing while alive," Sir Walter Scott remarked, "becomes a valuable article when knocked on the head and carried to an anatomist." Scott was being ironic about economies of scale, but as far as I know, he never used this incident as material. Dickens wasn't so shy. One of
his characters in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Jerry Cruncher, is explicitly a grave-robber. And in 1884, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a story called "The Body-Snatcher," which stops just short of naming Knox as a knowing accomplice. Stevenson's DR.
JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a reimagining of the Whitechapel murders, and there's been some conflation, in books and movies, of Burke and Hare's crimes with Jack the Ripper. The serial killer, as a figure of fear, is a mid-Victorian invention, I believe. Not that somebody might not claim many victims, but that he does it for the sick thrill.


Psychopathology wasn't well-understood, in the 1800's - the term didn't even come into general use until the early 20th century. One of the narrative engines of David Morrell's gripping recent novel, MURDER AS A FINE ART, which takes place in 1854 London, is the lack of any practical forensic approach, and the inability to process, let alone inhabit, the mindset of a serial murderer. It's not simply an unknown, but unimaginable, like an empty space on an old map, which simply states: Here Be Monsters. Burke and Hare took up their trade for the easy money, but the seeming
effortlessness of the murders gives you pause. They displayed no remorse. Burke, in fact, before he went to the scaffold, asked whether Dr. Knox would give him the five pounds he was owed for his last victim, so Burke could buy a new suit of clothes to be hanged in. 

"To know my deed, 'twere best not to know myself," Macbeth says. Burke and Hare apparently avoided any kind of self-knowledge. They denied the humanity of the men and women, and at least one child, that they murdered, but did they deny their own? Neither one of them were crazy, so far as we know, although they were probably a few cards short of a full deck. They were paid five to ten pounds for each dead body they delivered. In today's numbers, between six and twelve hundred bucks. Not too shabby, if you're desecrating a grave in the wee hours, but for a capital crime? The odd thing about these guys is that they were very far from the pathology of the Ripper. There was actually nothing out of the ordinary about them. They were simply dumb enough to get caught.

Maybe that's the thing. It isn't that Burke and Hare live on in our imagination because they were criminal deviants who've evaded detection for 125 years - is the Ripper case solved? More, perhaps,
that Burke and Hare touched a popular nerve at the time, and that a writer like Dickens or Stevenson gives them shelf life. (Burke's skeleton is still on display at the Edinburgh Medical School.) No, the dread lies in the open grave. 

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

08 January 2014

Post-Partum

by David Edgerley Gates

I wrapped the rough draft of a thriller called EXIT WOUNDS yesterday. The start date was 07-13-13, so about six months to write. It clocks in at 60K words, which is quick and dirty compared to the two previous books, both of which ran to 100K, and took longer. The more curious thing is that although it gives me an enormous sense of satisfaction, I'm feeling somewhat bereft, or adrift.

My general habit is that after I finish a book, I'll buckle down to some short stories, and I try to hit a deadline of a week to ten days for each story. David Morrell is fond of quoting Carrie Fisher, "The problem with instant gratification is that it isn't quick enough." The difference between a story and a novel isn't simply word count, but stamina. A short story is like sudden, fugitive sex. A novel is a relationship.

Writing a book, you're waking up with the same person every morning, and some days they're happier to see you than others. You're familiar with their contours, even if you sometimes wonder what possibly prompted you to fall in love with them in the first place.

I don't know about you, but I need to have a project of some kind going all the time. I like doing stories, because you do get that quick, energizing, empowering hit, and you know right away whether you got it right. Still, a book, where you're in it for the long haul, has a rhythm, and a kind of tidal pull, because you're navigating deeper waters, and uncharted shoals, often without a compass, what might be called dead reckoning.

A short story may come to you fully-fleshed, and all of a piece. A novel doesn't, in my experience. You may try on every piece of clothing in your wardrobe, until you find the one that fits. And there's a lot of second-guessing. Did you start down a blind alley, with no exit strategy? Or is such-and-such a scene proving impossible to write, simply because it's in the wrong book? On the other hand, the most intractable issue can suddenly resolve itself, when you hold it up to the light. You never know. The struggle is part of the gain. This, of course, is exactly why I'm feeling this let-down. The process is consuming, and exhausting, and at the same time, exhilarating, and then you run out of road.

The other part, obviously, is that it may not turn out to be the book you meant to write. There's the observation Auden or Berryman or one of those guys made, that a novel is a prose work of a certain length that has something wrong with it. This is maybe more true of a literary novel than a genre one, but it still applies. We see the soft spots, inconsistency or structural weakness, the easy choices and cheap effects. I have a friend who says he won't go back and read his older stuff, he's afraid it will make him cringe.

We set the bar higher with every book or story. We're less willing to settle for watered wine. We all have a bag of tricks, whether it's wisecracking dialogue or evocative physical description or heart-stopping violence, but as we mature (I mean in the sense of sharpened skills), it's no longer as simple as having a guy come through the door with a gun. Not that some devices aren't tried-and-true, but we're not as likely to use them reflexively. We rehearse the play longer, we take greater care to hit our marks, and we hope opening night sells out to standing room only.

With that said, on to the next sordid affair.