(Published in Red Herrings)
Peter Sutcliffe, AKA the Yorkshire Ripper, is dead. He terrorised the north of England and spread fear throughout the country during his murderous rampage between 1975 and 1981. His passing, aged 74 of Coronavirus, while suffering heart problems and diabetes, and refusing to accept further treatment almost forty years after he was sentenced to twenty life sentences, brings an end to one of the darkest and mercilessly destructive lives of all time.
But his long and murderous shadow will remain scarred in the public consciousness, just as his near-namesake Jack the Ripper stays with us from almost a century earlier.
Millions of words have been written about the case, which continues to offer a morbid fascination for many, so that upon his death news programmes, newspapers and the internet is saturated by him, documenting and examining his actions, the consequences on the families of the thirteen murder victims and seven murder survivors, all innocent women who were unfortunate enough to cross his path.
But three key books, by the late Gordon Burn, Michael Bilton and Carol Ann Lee, collectively tell us all we will ever need to know about Sutcliffe’s background and abnormal psyche, the dogged yet incompetent police investigation and the misogynistic and morally imperious mindset of the time which worked against his victims and their families for so long.
Gordon Burn’s first book, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son (1984), is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Burn moved to Bingley, outside Bradford in Yorkshire for two years, and got first hand interviews with Sutcliffe’s family and people who had known him. In the wake of massive tabloid interest, this was quite a feat- in terms of first-hand research conducted by an author so soon after a crime arguably only matched by Truman Capote with his magnum opus In Cold Blood.
In his book, Burn displayed the compassion and psychological insight which along with his crystal smooth prose style would become hallmarks of both his fiction and non-fiction. Of Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, Norman Mailer said ‘A book which will with some justice be compared to In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song…It is as if Thomas Hardy were also present in the writing of this account.’ Patricia Highsmith said that ‘We come to know all these people as we might characters in a novel, and the book picks up a narrative current that keeps the reader turning the pages.’
The opening of Burn’s book is a master-class in narrative scene and atmosphere setting, placing Peter Sutcliffe in his Yorkshire roots: ‘Although less than six miles along the Aire valley from Bradford, the enduringly Victorian “Worstedopolis” whose dormitory it has increasingly become, Bingley is in many ways a country town, distrustful of, and often hostile to, what are all too easily interpreted as slick city ways…’ Burn goes on to describe how Mrs Gaskell, when travelling in the locality in early Victorian times, was ‘immediately struck by the sullen and suspicious demeanour of the people…’
Towards the end of the book, Burn reports, from an interview with Peter’s brother Carl, how Sutcliffe, then in prison, explained his multiple murder and mutilation of women to his brother: ‘Asked why he had done it, Peter had looked at Carl, and smiled, and said, “I were just cleaning up streets, our kid. Just cleaning up the streets.”’
In many ways a classically written book, Burn’s approach to his macabre subject was novel and ground-breaking, the detail breath-taking. Reading the book is a harrowing and truly immersive experience, and brings us as close to Sutcliffe as the vast majority of us would dare to go, and we understand Sutcliffe in his milieu, and how his malevolently dangerous personality and mental state was formed.
First published in 2003 and updated and expanded in 2012, the former Sunday Times journalist Michael Bilton's Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper approaches the case from a very different angle, the long, arduous and often incompetent police investigation. Bilton exposes just how inept the police inquiry was, which saw Sutcliffe questioned no less than nine times, and how he was able to bluff his way out of becoming a prime suspect despite very strong strands of evidence connecting him to the murders and attacks.
Bilton shows us just what can happen when the police become fixated on a lead, in this case the tape and letters from a man claiming to be the Ripper, which diverted almost all investigative efforts to the North East of England, far away from Sutcliffe's home territory of West Yorkshire. And all this because the hoaxer had an accent from Wearside, which in the eyes of the obsessed and physically ailing leader of the Ripper inquiry, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield of West Yorkshire Police, belonged to the killer. Oldfield single-mindedly followed that avenue, allowing Sutcliffe, already long on the police's radar, to murder and mutilate several more women, until he was caught by fluke on 2 January 1981.
Bilton's book is a journalistic juggernaut, its weight and accumulated profundity built from detail which comes from only the most thorough research, and sets Sutcliffe's crimes against his time and place, explaining how he was able to go on killing for so long. It does for the police investigation what Burn's book does for Sutcliffe as a human-being, and he was human, however monstrous his actions were.
Finally, to complete the macabre triptych, there is Carol Ann Lee's 2019 opus Somebody's Mother, Somebody's Daughter: Victims and Survivors of the Yorkshire Ripper. Lee focuses on Sutcliffe's victims, and as the title and the book's introduction suggest, it is a riposte and in a way companion piece to Burn's book, which brings the Yorkshire Ripper's story into wider and starker relief. Lee focuses on what truly matters- the poor women who died and were viciously attacked at Sutcliffe's hands, and the entrenched and devastating impact of his crimes on generations of their families.
Lee shows us just how misogynistic British society was at the time, and how the police, media and public didn't take so much notice until the 'non-prostitute' victim was killed. We can feel the moral injustice, the blind blinkeredness which prejudice, a lack of understanding and life's diversity can cause.
Lee illuminates this late 1970's-early 1980's world which has been mined to poignantly comic effect in the hit television shows Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes. But in the cold unforgiving darkness of Sutcliffe's five-and-a-half-year dreadful spree, there are no smiles to be had, only despair, thoughtfulness, and admiration for the strength of the human spirit in the darkest of circumstances.
Together, these three highly-accomplished non-fiction books, by very different yet equally fine writers, offer a deep-dive into the mind and times of Sutcliffe, and how society and those tasked to avenge him reacted to the homicidal mayhem and trauma he wrought.