Behind The Book: Stephen Hunter’s I, RIPPER

Sometimes you choose the book and sometimes the book chooses you. Then there are times when the book doesn’t “choose” you, it dragoons you.

In the case of “I, Ripper,” happily, it was the latter. Jack the Ripper simply marched in and demanded to be written about. He took me hostage for about a year and I was afraid if I didn’t make him go away by writing him, he’d cut my throat. Thus I had little option but to trek back to the Whitechapel, London, of 1888 and revisit the scenes of five of the most brutal murders that have ever occurred.

The whole thing began sometime, I think, in the ’70s. I was book review editor of the Baltimore Sunday Sun–this is in ancient times when newspapers actually had things like book review editors–and someone must have published a big Jack book. Further, I must have read it. Further still, I must have been fascinated by it and gone on, in a little squall of energy, to read a batch other Jack books. I have no memory of any of this, but somehow I acquired a fund of Jack knowledge–who, what, when, how, but of course never why–that lay in my subconscious, exposing itself only when provoked.

Years passed. This happened, that happened. I was aware of activity in Jackland now and then, most particularly when Patricia Cornwell published her theory that the artist Walter Sickert was Jack, to much hoo-hah and tumult. I knew enough to doubt her conclusion but I had to admire her creativity, tenacity and desire to find the truth.

Yet more years passed, and Jack dozed away, deep inside. Then one night–I must be careful here, for to give away too much is to commit the crime (against myself, no less!) of the SPOILER–I was watching a certain beloved movie on TCM. I was retired as a film critic by that time, my kids were out of college, and nobody was paying me to watch movies, which meant I could enjoy them again. So I watched it unravel on screen–beloved stars, beloved director, beloved story from beloved play, love, love, love everywhere. But all I felt was hate.

That was because the beloved central character was, I saw, a monster. He was manipulative, without moral compass, domineering, abusive and untethered by doubt.  I found him repulsive. Since the piece in question was set more or less in that appropriate time and place, it wasn’t long before a bomb went off in my head: HE could be Jack the Ripper.

It was, I thought then and still think now, the best idea I ever had. It had the sense of a morbid joke, which I thought some readers would enjoy, and at the same time I thought it could be very thrilling.  It was set in the demimonde and I’m the sort of man who is attracted to demimondes and would thrive within one. It was British, of course, and I’m also the sort of man who thinks he was the third Earl of Dorset switched at birth with the Hunter baby in the Kansas City hospital in 1946, though what the second Earl of Dorset was doing in Kansas City with his wife, the very pregnant Duchess is unknown. So the English part would be fun. There there’d be certain clothes I loved, mainly tweeds, plus really cool hats. It filled me with enthusiasm.

However, ideas are not stories. Ideas are points, stories are schematics. I needed characters, a train of incidents, a way of organizing information, both an intellectual and an action arc, playing off each other.  In short I had nothing but confusion as to how actually to proceed.

So the idea just seemed beyond my reach. Yet more years pass. I grow old, I grow old.  And then I got an offer from Otto Penzler, who owns the Mysterious Book Store and its publishing house, to write a novella for a series he calls his “Bibliomysteries.” That is, it has to touch on some aspect of rare books, fine books, lost books, libraries, collections, whatever, and I wondered if my Jack idea might fit that template. I saw immediately the fun of a Jack “diary,” (and I didn’t know several others had already done the same), but it occurred to me that I needed another point of view. Thus I came to the weird structure of a diary entwined with a memoir, the crime viewed from without and from within in alternating chapters, the whole chronicling the hunting and the hunted over the passage through the Autumn of the Knife, leading to the revelatory climax. It was a story! “It’s alive, it’s alive,” I shrieked.

That was the eureka moment (in a New York cab, as I recall) and it so filled me with energy and ambition I could hardly restrain myself. In my business, you’re an idiot if you don’t use bolts from the blue like that. My first move, of course, was to betray Otto. He took it like a man when I told him I thought the idea was too big for him. He only cried for a few weeks. (I did ultimately write the Bibliomystery for him.)

The rest was tedious admin work, convincing agent and publisher that this was the right career move, putting together a sort of outline, asking my pal Lenne Miller to do the research–he majored in British literature, Victorian era–because I knew he would be precise where I would be sloppy.

With his guidance, I used standard texts for details, and I’m a great believer in maps, maps, maps. But it’s also true that I have a nose for tenderloins. Always been attracted to them in some low way. In Chicago it was lower Wabash, in Washington it was 14th Street, in Baltimore the Block. As David Warner’s Jack says in “Time After Time,” “I’m home.” So working up the energy, vulgarity, grit, flesh, hunger, crowding, all of it transpiring in gaudy lights was something I knew to be in my powers. I couldn’t describe Winnetka, IL, or Marlybone, London, worth a damn, but put me in a zone of skin and wiggle and I’ll be all right.

Yes, I did go to Whitechapel, and bits of Victorian London are still visible. You look down an alley, you go through a passageway, you examine the roof of the Underground station, you have a beer at a place like the Ten Bells, you squint a little (maybe it’s night out, further obscuring the reality) and one can–or at least I could–see and feel the old red light district, the bobbies, the johns, the “unfortunates” on parade.

Once I finally got it on the tracks, it just seemed to happen. The actual writing was bliss, the years turned to months, the months to days and, Hey Presto! — there it was.

Stephen Hunter
Stephen Hunter has written eighteen novels. The retired chief film critic for The Washington Post, where he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism, he has also published two collections of film criticism and a nonfiction work, American Gunfight. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland. –