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Another good Ripper


Edited by Stewart Evans and Keith Skinner

Carroll & Graf, $35


Is there a more striking example of the flukiness of criminal fame than Jack the Ripper? The official body-count, by today's gore-glutted standards, was fairly pedestrian: Five alcoholic prostitutes slain in London's East End in the autumn of 1888. So how did his handiwork spawn a class of obsessives, no less rapt than Kennedy-assassination buffs, dedicated to combing the minutiae of the murders and publishing ever-wilder theories about them?

Well, we can start with that catchy name. At once eerily personal and hinting at Everyman, it was the inspired invention of a fledging sensationalist press seeking to capitalize on the unfolding horrors. Apart from the bizarre sexual mutilations, there's also the seamy allure of the setting, with its labyrinth of pitch-black courtyards, endless brothels and poverty so rending Jack London called it "The Abyss."

And because the killer was never identified, add the Rorschach-blot factor: People betray their own biases in how they interpret the evidence. Suspects range from foreigners and syphilitic surgeons to Freemason and members of the Royal Family, or, if Marxism is the game, to an Alienated Man in the age of industrialization.

In the wake of the East End murders, police received hundreds of letters from presumably average people indulging their fantasies of being the Ripper _ to my mind, the most disturbing aspect of the story. It shines a light on the wormy shadow-life of Victorian England, so famous for its buttoned-up official front. Here was a creature stalking through the muck of a repressed age's collective subconscious.

At more than 600 pages, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion is a massive compendium of original documents on the case, introduced by brief explanatory notes from the editors _ Scotland Yard files, autopsy reports, hoax letters and news clippings of the day. It's a immersion in the matrix of raw facts from which so many myths later emerged, a reminder that, at the time, several other prostitute slayings _ also exhaustively documented here _ were reflexively attributed to the Ripper.

In a letter penned by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren, we get the background on a piece of police bungling that fueled accusations of an official coverup. This was Warren's decision to destroy potentially key evidence _ arguably anti-Semitic chalk graffito that might have come from the killer _ before it could even be photographed. We learn that Warren feared a riot, should the London crowds see the message.

Among other gems, for students of social history, is a Sept. 1888 letter to the Times of London from the Rev. Samuel A. Barnett, who used the "Whitechapel horrors" as a plea for reform: More police, the removal of animal slaughterhouses and slumlords, cleaner streets and better lighting ("dark passages lead to evil deeds").

This is not easy reading, though, nor front-to-back reading. For the uninitiated, Donald Rumbelow's The Complete Jack the Ripper, at some 300 pages, is a more digestible introduction. To see how the subject can fire a first-rate literary imagination, try Alan Moore's incomparable graphic novel From Hell _ with scratchy, brooding ink drawings by Eddie Campbell _ which hits the screen in spring 2001. The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion will serve well, however, as a reference bible for the already-converted. While it is nicely free of wild-eyed new theories, it seems likely to become an indispensable source book for Ripper hobbyists, scholars and obsessives.

Christopher Goffard is a Times staff writer.