I have just read an excellent book of social history called The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. It is an exploration of the lives of the five women generally acknowledged to be the victims of Jack the Ripper. I have read a few books about the Victorian Serial killer in the past but where this book varies from those is that it doesn’t really mention the Ripper at all and it doesn’t go into any detail about the crimes. This is a book about the lives of the five women and how they came to be so vulnerable that they were easy prey for the killer; the author is also keen to dispel the long standing myth that all his victims were prostitutes.
This book is compelling and eye opening as we read about the lives of these women and it is also very sad as we see how easy it is to lose everything and to end up homeless and destitute. I thought that I knew quite a lot about Victorian social history but I found this book enlightening. It is also a suitable read for a week that includes International Women’s Day.
If you enjoy this look at Victorian Social history I think you might also like The Worst Street in London by Fiona Rule. This is a study of Dorset Street which was once notorious for vice and iniquity and which features in The Five. The book looks at the history of the street through a number of generations and thus illuminates the story of London and its people.
The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise is a study of another famous London crime which occurred a bit before the events in The Five. The book shows more of the lives of poor and vulnerable Londoners but the victim here is not really known because he is never satisfactorily identified. He was killed to provide a body for the medical schools in the way that Burke and Hare did in Edinburgh. This book is very good at describing the lives of the criminal element of the time.
The best known historical true crime book is The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale which is about the murder at Road Hill House in Wiltshire which took place in 1860. This event actually happened in a middle class home and the book is good on the role of the police and the beginning of detective work. This is a gripping book and deserves its success.
If you are interested in the Jack the Ripper story then you may enjoy The Night in Question by Laurie Graham. This is a novel and its main character is a music hall star called Dot Allbones. Dot is an engaging heroine as she manoeuvers her way through Victorian London at the time of the Ripper killings and it all becomes a bit too close to home when she befriends a woman who becomes one of the victims. I enjoy this author’s novels and I liked this one a lot.
One of the most famous books about a true crime is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This is a study of a seemingly motiveless crime that took place in Kansas in 1959. It is a brilliantly written book which tries to reveal the lives and emotions of the killers as well as the victims and the people of the town in which the crime took place. It discusses the murder in detail, although it is not gory, and the investigation. If you enjoy true crime then you should read this.
A final suggestion of a book which historical true crime readers may enjoy is The Devil in White City by Erik Larson. This book is partly about the Chicago World Fair which took place in 1893 but it is also about a serial killer who was operating in the city at the same time and how he used the busy urban landscape and the excitement of the Fair to lure young women to their death. It is a fascinating story.
I hope some of these books may be of interest to those of you who like social history and true crime. I certainly recommend The Five.