While watching the brothers Kemp present a television series investigating Gangs of Britain, just one programme amongst many depicting true crime, I wondered why we are so fascinated by real life crime?
Are we trying to understand the culprits? Or are we sympathising with the victims? Are we looking for solutions? Or simply rubbernecking?
Two serial killers operated during my teenage years: Peter Sutcliffe; and Dennis Nilsen. The Yorkshire Ripper was in the open, the police seemingly clueless, the press fascinated/abhorred. Nilsen’s crimes, in contrast, were hidden, without any interference the authorities. Two books that were produced as a result stand out: Killing for Company – Brian Masters; and Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son – Gordon Burn. Masters’ book, which I bought soon after publication, was intriguing, a well written examination of a damaged being, an attempt to analyse the man rather than the crimes which was far less sensationalist than the cut and paste technique used for by other writers. In Burn’s book, Sutcliffe comes across less sympathetically than Nilsen, and generally Somebody’s Husband is more disturbing.
Is it that we need the disconnect to read about these crimes? Too close and we are abhorred, given a bit of distance, in time or space and we can take in the information with detachment. I was at a party in Cricklewood, a few streets away from one of Nilsen’s flats, while the police were searching for bodies. We were young and fascinated by the crime, one thought we had was that as Nilsen had been killing for years and no one had noticed, there might be another serial killer operating at that very moment, and a few years later the Wests were uncovered. I’ve never felt the urge to read about them or of any the latest kidnappers and murderers that have been uncovered recently.
In contrast, Jack The Ripper continues to capture the imagination. Forests of books have been produced, acres of newsprint, myriad of theories. Whitechapel in the late 19th Century is far enough away to be able to be viewed with a dispassionate air. The gruesome crimes can be viewed with historical detachment, not unlike an archaeological dig. Whereas some of us were of an age to possibly be or know one of Sutcliffe’s, Nilsen’s or the West’s victims, The Ripper’s victims are just names and a few gruesome photos.
I’ve worked in and around the Whitechapel area and vaguely know the murder sites, but have never considered joining a walking tour. The mystery of identification is what is fascinating, especially as we will never know the truth. In The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper, Maxim Jakubowski collects together a number of theories with a chapter at the beginning with ‘Just the facts’. You can choose one to believe, safe in the knowledge that the evidence to prove or disprove it does not exist. The lives of the people directly affected by the Autumn of Terror™ does not have to concern you.
Back to the Kemp twins’ (without their younger brother Ross) show, they examine gangs in different cities and different eras, comparing and contrasting across the ages. Although the violence is as sickening in 1893 as in 2003, the past has a sepia haze, true crime examined with a historical eye is more palatable, The Yorkshire Ripper is seen as a evil, sick excuse for a human being, his Victorian counterpart is almost admired and seen as mythical creature whose place in history is assured.