“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The 3 trillion dollar recession and the price of tea

LI finds it clarifying to refer to baseline numbers when thinking about big events, like wars and recessions. For this recession, we hold to the number, 3 trillion dollars – which reflects the growth rate for consumption over the growth of GDP over the last ten years, according to Michael Mandel at Business Week. And that growth, in turn, reflected the magic economy of assets inflation in a world in which inflation was supposedly dead. The magic was in simply not registering the extent of the assets inflation – it was put in a black box, technically diminished so that the information it gave to the Fed could be ignored. When you fix the information that you are supposed to respond to, you destroy the integrity of the machine. It is that simple.

And now, of course, we have asset deflation and inflation on other fronts. This story captured LI’s attention. As, apparently, hardcore members of the bottom 20% on the American wealth scale – oscillating between being in the straight poverty class and just above it – inflation is our biggest worry. At the same time, there has been a sort of cone of silence over the real rate of inflation that has affected our class. It is as if the poor live in some sub-Argentina in this country, where the prices are always going up dramatically, while the rest of the country lived somewhere else.

“Over all, Americans are spending about 13 percent more on food and energy now than a year ago. The figures, as are all the figures shown in the charts accompanying this article, are based on three-month moving averages of seasonally adjusted figures, and compare this year with last year.
The biggest cause of that increase is gasoline, of course. Americans are spending 22 percent more now at gasoline stations than they did a year ago. Food costs are up nearly 6 percent, a smaller amount but still a drain on budgets.”

This is pretty huge. If, as we think, the 3 trillion dollar gap is going to be closed, or at least the start on that closure is what we are going to see, then the recession is going to be deeper than anybody is forecasting. And if inflation on ordinary goods continues at this rate, compounded by the inflation on lifestyle goods like education and healthcare, the American middle class is going to be joining our Argentina soon. It is no fun, alas.

Friday, February 15, 2008

News from our great Democratic Ally

Pleas for condemned Saudi 'witch'

“In a letter to King Abdullah, the rights group described the trial and conviction of Fawza Falih as a miscarriage of justice.

The illiterate woman was detained by religious police in 2005 and allegedly beaten and forced to fingerprint a confession that she could not read.

Among her accusers was a man who alleged she made him impotent.”

Let the winds strip the calendar back to glorious January, when our beloved leader, President Backbone, made the democracy tour in the Middle East. Among the chroniclers of a moral moment that rivaled Jesus preaching on the mountain and Buddha’s revelation under a sweet gum tree, nobody’s tongue worked as eagerly on the presidential behind as Michael Abramowitz, the Washington Post chronicler of all the fun and goofy things our, well, greatest president ever did on his fabulous trip. The highlight of the tour was, of course, our consultation with our great democratic ally in the fight against the intolerable totalitarianism of Iran (pause for booing…):

“Bush is devoting two days of his Middle East trip to Saudi Arabia, much of it to private meetings with the king, who is hosting the president at his guest palace here and at the farm near Riyadh where Abdullah raises Arabian stallions. That amounts to an unusual commitment of diplomatic time, reflecting both the large role Saudi Arabia plays in U.S. economic and foreign policy and a desire to strengthen a relationship that has frayed badly over the past seven years.

Some diplomats and experts with close ties to the administration say meeting with Abdullah has been the main purpose of the president's trip to the region.

One senior administration official traveling with the president said this week that Bush regards the octogenarian Abdullah as "really a remarkable figure," citing the king's role in starting reforms such as municipal elections and in regional diplomacy, and that the president intends to reaffirm their "close personal relationship."
White House counselor Edward W. Gillespie described the one-on-one time with the king, who is known to dislike diplomacy conducted over the phone, as a "very important" part of the visit to Saudi Arabia.

Despite the outward display of affection on the tarmac, the relationship has also been tense and uneasy for much of Bush's tenure, according to former senior officials and experts on Saudi Arabia.

"The president has a personal bond with the king," said Dan Bartlett, Bush's former counselor. "This visit will go a long way to keeping relations on the right track. The personal diplomacy that the president likes to use will resonate with the way the kingdom does foreign policy, because it is so dominated by the king himself."

The Post is a tout paper for the bizarre Weltanschauung of D.C. elite, a world view and language which makes gangsta rap, by contrast, seem reality based. Unfortunately, these revelers in spilling blood they will never see cause blood en masse to be spilt and bodies to pile up on the invisible margins, where we can dicker about them later (300,000 Iraqis murdered or 600,000? yours to guess). In this imperial farce, there are two pillars – Israel is not to be criticized, and Saudi Arabia is not to be mentioned. Thus, if Iran hangs a man for homosexuality, there will be four WAPO op ed pieces about it and one editorial, notching it up as just one more casus belli. If Saudi Arabia burns a witch, the story won’t happen in the Post. The Saudis are our allies, after all, in the long, long, long, long war to democratize everything and destroy terra-ism.

'Undefined' crime
The US-based group is asking the Saudi ruler to void Ms Falih's conviction and to bring charges against the religious police who detained her and are alleged to have mistreated her.
Its letter to King Abdullah says the woman was tried for the undefined crime of witchcraft and that her conviction was on the basis of the written statements of witnesses who said that she had bewitched them.
Human Rights Watch says the trial failed to meet the safeguards in the Saudi justice system.
The confession which the defendant was forced to fingerprint was not even read out to her, the group says.
Also Ms Falih and her representatives were not allowed to attend most of the hearings.
When an appeal court decided she should not be executed, the law courts imposed the death sentence again, arguing that it would be in the public interest.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 15--One of the more surreal scenes of the eight-day presidential trip to the Middle East may have taken place this evening at the lavish Al Janadriyah Ranch, the so-called "horse farm" where Saudi King Abdullah entertains his most favored guests and raises Arabian stallions.
When the president arrived for dinner, a little before 7 p.m. local time, he was wearing a black full-length robe with bluish-silver trim and seeming eminently pleased, as Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times described it in his pool report last night. Later, when he sat down with the king and took off the robe, it became clear that it was lined with fur.
When his aides showed up, they too were wearing similar robes. The contingent included White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, Counselor Ed Gillespie, Press Secretary Dana Perino and--most curiously perhaps--National Security Council staffer Elliott Abrams, better known in Washington as possibly Israel's staunchest supporter inside the White House.

When asked by Newsweek reporter Michael Hirsh, Elliott of Arabia said he was allowed to keep the robe, suggesting these were gifts for all.

Perhaps Bush is right that the time is ripe for Middle East peace."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentines Day, LI readers

LI is shackled by a tight schedule today. And it is Valentine’s day! During our busy day yesterday (a meeting with a potential editing client, and in the evening, an invite to see a film about an election campaign in Japan, followed by music at… what was the name of that 6th street club?) we heard many disparaging things being said about Valentine’s day. Of course, LI, blistering in our sore and sour solitude, could cast an evil eye on Valentine’s day. But fuck that – those who bitch at the mighty power of Venus notoriously suffer dire fates.

Unfortunately, the American media, or the NYT, has decided on this day to treat us to a love story among the powerful – thus, the report on that über-rebarbative couple, Nicholas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni. At least it is slowly penetrating the Americanosphere that this romance “made in France” is pissing off the French royally. For some reason, the air of the can-can still lingers over “France” in the American media, as though it were a country dedicated to producing naughty postcards of women caught bending over and showing their knickers, a country where the sounds of Maurice Chevalier singing thank heaven for leeeeetle girls can always be heard winding through the streets of Gay Paree. Often though, the very cluelessness of myth rides us to an apposite conjunction of images – and so it is here. The can-can/Chevalier theme point us to the slight, persistent stench of corruption that always surrounds Sarkozy’s behavior – it is very reminiscent of the utterly corrupt behavior of French pols in the 1890s, a bribed lot of wankers who spent their graft on chorus girls (in whose beds they were notoriously prone to be found dead) when not passing laws against anarchist bomb attacks or making anti-semitic speeches. Colette was the poet of this scene, all right.

Ah, Venus, that these products of the new gilded age would be swept away in a paroxysm of your divine disgust!

Happy Valentine’s day, folks.

PS - Maybe I need to perk this post up with some positive Valentine's day vibes. So here they are.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

elephant crusoes

Alas, this week is going to be so crowded that LI is going to have a hard time doing what we promised: that is, writing about the social animal.

We wanted to go at this thing in classic philosopher-bot style by goin’ back to the greeks, scanning through Aristotle and Plato for some quote, then scanning up rapidly to Descartes. You know the drill.

Instead, I think we will be entering the subject through a different route. Instead of Aristotle or Plato, Pliny.

And instead of going at this all straightforwardly and with a tie on and chalk dust on the seat of my trousers, I’m gonna go at it crookedly (I saw I am Cuba last night – a film seemingly designed to be shown by IT’s Kino Fist! – and was impressed by the insane camera work, which seemed to be the expression of a camera man who had been taken with, nay, traumatized by Kertesz’s distortion photographs for the first episode involving riotous American sex tourists exploiting virtuous Cubans – and I thought, why not me?) and introduce here the topic we’ve all been waiting for: footprints.

In Umberto Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics, there is a passage on what has proved to be Eco’s favorite logical tool, abduction. Eco took the idea from Pierce. Pierce is a notoriously hard philosopher to pin down to canonical texts, since he wrote on the run, as it were – but this is from a notebook proposal for a book on logic:

… in my paper in the Johns Hopkins _Studies in Logic_, overemphasizing formalities, I failed to distinguish between abduction and a previously overlooked or little noticed variety of induction which may be called "abductive induction"; in consequence of which, that paper, although correct as far as it goes, and although fully covering the subject of which it professed to treat, entirely overlooked an indispensable mode of inference, abduction, I myself having previously described the inference correctly. Deduction is necessary inference; but if it is applied to probability, then, while remaining in itself necessary, it concludes a probability. That gives the doctrine of chances. Induction is a totally different sort of inquiry, proceeding, by means of experiment, to obtain an answer to a previously propounded question. It has two species: the extensive, where the question is how much, and the comprehensive, or abductive, where the question is to be answered by yes or no (or else is merely susceptible of a vague answer). Abduction is distinguished from abductive induction in not being, properly speaking, experimental, that is, it makes its observations without reference to any previously propounded question, but, on the contrary, itself starts a question, or problematically propounded hypothesis, to explain a surprising observation. Since I barely escaped error on this matter, I will in this present note illustrate the difference between abduction, abductive induction, and probable deduction.

Suppose, then, that, being seated in a street car, I remark a man opposite to me whose appearance and behavior unite characters which I am surprised to find together in the same person. I ask myself, How can this be? Suppose I find this problematic reply: Perhaps he is an ex-priest. He is the very image of such a person; he presents an icon of an ex-priest. Here is an iconic argument, or abduction of it. Secondly, it now occurs to me that if he is an ex-priest, he should be tonsured; and in order to test this, I say something to him calculated to make him take off his hat. He does so, and I find that he is indeed tonsured. Here at last is an indication that my theory is correct. I can now say that he is presumably an ex-priest, although it would be inaccurate to say that there is any definite probability that he is so, since I do not know how often I might find a man tonsured who was not an ex-priest, though evidently far oftener than he would be one. The supposition is, however, now supported by an inductive induction, a weak form of symptomatic or indexical argument. It stands on a widely different basis from that on which it stood before my little experiment. Before, it rested on the flimsy support of similarity, or agreement in "flavor." Now, facts have been constrained to yield confirmation to it by bearing out a prediction based upon it. Belief in the theory rests now on factual reaction to the theory. Thirdly, while the man's hat is off, I read in the crown of it a name that has been pasted into it. I have no doubt whatever that it is the man's name. I do not go into the question of how I come to be so confident of that.”

As you can tell from Peirce’s example, logic, here, runs into detective work. Indeed, logic is, for Peirce, wholly connected to inquiry. Eco, taking Peirce’s hints, writes about clues in his book on semiotics, and takes us to a familiar example – familiar, I suspect, because it was passed around so often in the early sixties by semioticians and critics:

In the recognition of clues, one isolates certain objects (or any other kinds of trace which are not imprints) left by someone on the spot where he did something, so that by their actual presence the past presence of the agent can be inferred. It is evident that, when used for mentioning, clues work in exactly the opposite way from symptoms; by a coded and proven contiguity (of the type ‘owned to owner’) a possible presence of the causing agent is abduced. In order that the abduction be performed, the object must be conventionally recognized as belonging to (or being owned by) a precise class of agents. Thus if at the scene of a murder I find a dental plate I may presume that, if not the murderer, at any rate someone who has no more natural teeth has been there…

As a matter of fact clues are seldom coded, and their interpretation is frequently a matter of complex inference rather than of sign-function recognition, which makes criminal novels more interesting than the detection of pneumonia.
One could say that imprints and clues, even though coded, are ‘proper names’, for they refer back to a given agent. The objection does not affect the fact that they refer, in any case, to a content, for there is nothing to stop the class to which the expression refers from being a one-member class…

But in fact very seldom can imprints and clues be interpreted as the traces of an individual agent (indeed maybe never). When looking at the footprint on the island, Robinson Crusoe was not able to think about an individual. He detected “human being”. When discovering Friday he was undoubtedly able to express the index-sensitive proposition “this is the man who probably left the footprint.” But even if he had previously known that there was one and only one man on the island he would not, when looking at the footprint, have been able to refer it to a preceise individual; the primary denotation of the expression would have been “human being” and the rest would have been a matter of inference.” (224, A Theory of Semiotics)

LI knows that these passages in Eco are fairly famous, at least among the lit crit crowd. We’d like to match them to some corresponding passages in an essay by Carlo Ginzburg which is also famous: Clues: Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes. But before we do that – before we make a contrast between Crusoe as prey and the detective in Ginzburg as predator – we want to introduce the animal note. This is from Pliny’s Natural History:

“The clemencie of Elephants: their foresight and knowledge of their owne dangers: also the fell fiercenesse of the Tygre.
A WONDER it is in many of these creatures, that they should thus know wherefore they are hunted, and withall take heed and beware of all their dangers. It is said, that if an Elephant chaunce to meet with a man wandering simply out of his way in the wildernesse, hee will mildly and gently set him into the right way againe. But if he perceive a mans fresh footing, before he espie the man, he will quake and tremble for feare of being forelaied and surprised: he will stay from farther following the sent, looke about him every way, snuffe and puffe for very anger. Neither will he tread upon the tract of a mans foot, but dig it out of the earth, and give it to the next Elephant unto him, and he againe to him that followeth, and so from one to another passeth this intelligence and message as it were, to the utmost ranke behind. Then the whole heard makes a stand, and cast round about to returne backward, and withall put themselves in battell array: so long continueth that strong virulent smell of mens feet, and runneth through them all, notwithstanding for the most part they be not bare, but shod.”

Crusoe is a mythical figure in classical economics, and thus in the history of the Great Transformation. He is like the first man in the Vedas - he plays that liminal role. He is the perfect individual: a maroon on an island, a man, and a maximizer of his self interest. His discovery of the footprint leads, in Eco’s account, to some detective work. But we sense a line being crossed here all unconsciously – that is, the passional aspect under which the footprint is discovered. Crusoe, as readers of the book know, goes into a profound panic due to that footprint. The panic has to do with the fact that the abduction, here, is made on the part of a creature who imagines himself to be possibly prey to a predator. Similarly, those elephants, wonderfully passing that image of a man’s footprint among themselves, gather themselves together in battell array to defend themselves. More than that, the footprint, which to Crusoe and to Eco is a visual icon, is, for the elephant, the site of at least two sense experiences – seeing and smelling. That ‘strong virulent smell of mens feet’ is left out of account in the detective novel – after all, men’s feet are usually shod, there. However, since we are plumbing mythology and natural history, here, the the piste – the trace – may well be odorous as well as visual, since we are in the realm of bare feet.

There’s a long and dominant tradition that divides man and animal according to one divine property – language. Usually, language is taken from the noun-side – it is the names of things that animals don’t have. But of course, language would not get off the ground if it were simply a cloud of names. It wouldn’t, to use Peirce’s language, respond to then needs of inquiry, as a footprint passed among elephants does.
LI will try to post about Ginsberg’s essay next.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The murderer and the punctum

The true fan of real crime books must be subject to moments of panic – or so say I, a fan of real crime books subject to moments of panic. Those are irrational, lock the door moments. I am still haunted by a very little moment in Serpentine, Thomas Thompson’s book about Charles Sobhraj, the killer who preyed on tourists on the “hippie road” in Asia during the 70s. The moment occurred, if I remember correctly, when Sobhraj and his pathetic lover were living in Pattaya, a resort town in Thailand. Upstairs from them was a Dutch couple, who’d come down with a mysterious sickness (Sobhraj would befriend people, give them poisoned food or drink, then nurse them through their long sickness until he had seized all of their money, then dispose of them). The lover went up to visit them one day and found them bound and gagged, seated on some chairs. And she decided not to see this, so she simply shut the door. (At the time, she was pretending that her lover’s wealth and the disappearance of various people about them had no connection). Sobhraj by this time apparently had enough of them, and was pondering their murder and disposal, so he'd tied them down so that they couldn't get away. He shortly afterwards killed and burned them – his usual trick. But something about the door opening, the moment of hope that must have flared up their two hearts, and the door closing – well, it strikes me as distinctly panic-making, a moment of such cruelly disappointed rescue that it must have been shattering.

It is tiny scenes like these which, for some reason, are the attraction of real crime books. There is a certain fun in moral vertigo, and it can’t be reasoned out of us.

My favorite of all real crime books – the one that strikes me as the best of the genre – is not In Cold Blood. It is The Reckoning, Charles Nicholl’s expert reconstruction of the murder of Christopher Marlowe. It doesn’t have any lock the door moments – alas, it is difficult even for the high strung to fear Elizabethan assassins in this day and age – but, in compensation, it offers an incredibly intricate puzzle, as Nicholl teases out the workings of Queen Elizabeth’s secret police. Usually I’d rather have the thrill than the detective work – many real crime books, following In Cold Blood, make no bones about who the killer is, and the beauty of the book is in following him or, more rarely, her – but Nicholl combines rare traits for a writer – he is both a kind of scholar of the Renaissance (he’s also written about Raleigh and Thomas Nashe, and has a nice essay on the Cenci) and a hippie travel writer – he was in Thailand for the drugs and such during Sobhraj’s spree years (not that he ‘s ever written about Sobhraj), which gave him the material for Borderlines – the book about the Golden Triangle when it was still golden, when you could still meet people who’d done the opium thing in Thailand right, back in the late 70s - and he traveled in Columbia right before coke became the boring industry it is now, which gave him the material for an even better book, Fruit Palace.

This is by way of urging LI’s readers to check out the review of the latest attempt to finger Jack the Ripper in the LRB.

LI has had occasion to review a Jack the Ripper book – the notoriously stupid book produced by Patricia Cornwell. We reviewed it for the Chicago Sun Times. Contrary to popular belief, book reviewers don’t eagerly look forward to penning negative reviews. Perhaps in the beginning of the sad reviewing career, one salivates to bite the inflated reputation. And, it is true, you get a lot more publicity for snark than for intelligent sympathy. Yet intelligent sympathy is the only real test for the reviewer – I like to think that many of my reviews could not even be labeled positive or negative, as if the only response to a book is to pull out the gradebook. Fuck that.

However, some books call out to the gods above to punish them. And no book called out for thunderbolts more than Cornwall’s galimatias of unsound psychology and unhinged amateur police work. To quote myself:

In 1976, a journalist named Stephen Knight wrote a book claiming that the Jack the Ripper murders, a series of brutal slayings in the Whitechapel area of London in 1888, were the work of a gang set up to protect the reputation of Queen Victorian’s grandson, the Duke of Clarence. The Duke of Clarence, it seems, had contracted marriage with a lowborn Catholic, and the prostitutes who were slain in 1888 were, in one way or another, involved in a vast plan to blackmail the royal family. Knight claimed that the artist, Walter Sickert, later famous as the greatest British impressionist, was the head of the gang that had exterminated Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Liz Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Kelly. Knight’s source for the rumors about Sickert was a man named Joseph Sickert, who claimed to be Walter Sickert’s illegitimate son.

Patricia Cornwall, the creator of fictional forensic detective Kay Scarpetta is also certain -- 100% certain, as she has said in numerous interviews -- that Walter Sickert is responsible for the Whitechapel murders. But you will not read a word about Knight or Joseph Sickert in this book, for Cornwall’s thesis depends, crucially, on her idea that Sickert’s organ of generation was deformed and dysfunctional. In Cornwall’s view, Sickert could not complete sexual congress normally. It is typical of the weirdness of this book that the ferver of Cornwall’s obsession with Sickert’s endownment is matched, in recent history, only by that of the Paula Jones law team’s with President Clinton’s. In the usual real crime book, Cornwall would argue for her hypothesis – which, as she admits, depends on a structure of speculation about some mysterious operations Sickert underwent as a child – by explaining away countering evidence, such as Joseph Sickert claims. There has been enough doubt expressed about Joseph Sickert that this shouldn’t be hard to manage.

But this isn’t your usual real crime book. This is an obsession in search of a justification. In Cornwall’s view, those who doubt Sickert as the murderer are, prima facie, to be doubted themselves. They are either carpers envious of Cornwall’s worldly success, or stooges of the sinister Sickert Trust. When Cornwall’s considerable investment of ego, as well as the six million dollars she spent on her investigation, meets a piece of evidence it doesn’t like, the evidence has as much chance as a Dixie cup has against a battle cruiser. You aren’t going to find it in this book. You aren’t going to find witnesses mentioned in other books, if they clutter Cornwall’s story line. You aren’t going to find suspects mentioned in other books. For Cornwall’s fans, this will surely work. They will end up convinced that Cornwall, like her fictional character, has tracked down her man through observation and the most modern tools of criminology. But for those who are interested in the Jack the Ripper case – Ripperologists, at they call themselves - these omissions have an opposite and highly depressing effect.”

Nicholl’s review is of a new suspect on the scene. Unfortunately, simply going by Nicholl’s representation of the case for Joseph Silver made by Charles van Onselen in The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath – the amateur detectives still have not gotten their man. However, van Onselen’s chase after Silver, whose cv is rich and strange (‘arsonist, bank robber, barber, bigamist, brothel-owner, burglar, confidence trickster, detective’s agent, gangster, horse-trader, hotelier, informer, jewel thief, merchant, pickpocket, pimp, policeman, rapist, restaurateur, safe-cracker, smuggler, sodomist, special agent, spy, storekeeper, trader, thief, widower, wigmaker and white slave trafficker’) makes this exercise in Ripperology at least interesting.

The Jack the Ripper murders are inherently panic-making. This is how Nicholl starts his review:

“They found Mary Jane Kelly lying on her bed, in the dingy room she rented in Miller’s Court, off Dorset Street in Spitalfields. She was about 25 years old, a colleen from County Limerick, ‘possessed of considerable attractions’. Widowed young, she had turned, like thousands of others in late Victorian London, to prostitution. One of her clients had taken her for a spree to Paris, and she had started to call herself Marie Jeanette. She was also nicknamed Ginger. She lay with her head ‘turned on the left cheek’. One arm was across her stomach, the other turned outwards ‘& rested on the mattress’. She was naked and ‘the legs were wide apart, the left thigh at right angles to the trunk’. These are the words of the police doctor summoned to the scene, Thomas Bond. It was the morning of Friday, 9 November 1888, and Kelly had just become – at a conservative estimate – the fifth and final victim of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.

The positioning of the victim’s body is consistent with the other murders, the splayed legs an immediately readable pornographic cliché: the prostitute in a pose of erotic availability. It is one of the Ripper’s ‘signatures’. It introduces a theme of retribution: this was her crime, and this is her punishment. Dr Bond does not venture these opinions, of course. His job was to observe, and to record as succinctly and scientifically as possible what he saw. His report continues: ‘The whole of the surface of the abdomen & thighs was removed & the abdominal cavity emptied of its viscera. The breasts were cut off, the arms mutilated by several jagged wounds, & the face hacked beyond recognition of the features.’ The eviscerated body parts were scattered – or worse, arranged – about her body, ‘viz. the uterus & kidneys with one breast under the head, the other breast by the right foot, the liver between the feet, the intestines by the right side’, and so on. The heart was missing, however: ‘the pericardium was open below & the heart absent.’ It may have been burned in the fireplace, which bore evidence of a ‘fire so large as to melt the spout off the kettle’. More probably it was taken away by the killer. This is another of Jack’s signatures: what is known in the lexicons of Ripperology as the ‘harvesting’ of body parts.”

Which puts one in mind of the ancestor of all real crime writing, De Quincey’s On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts. Perhaps I shouldn't so casually award Nicholls best in this category - but DeQuincey's is an essay, not a book. Ah, a connection is dimly appearing here, between opium and true crime writing – but this is a mere coincidence, a ladder in the stocking of the genre, so to speak. Still, perhaps one needs to understand vertigo as intimately as an opium eater like De Quincey to write a really great real crime piece. His account of the Ratcliffe Highway murders (IT, who has been doing a desultory psychogeography of London places that aren't usually seen (in the spirit of Rachel Whiteread's plaster casts of the insides of objects) lately, should perhaps plan a visit to some of the great murder scenes one of these days – these are, in their way, monuments to modernism too! - although I have no idea if you could even walk around 29 Ratcliffe Highway, now The Highway, Stepney, near King David Lane, viewable by Google Satellite pic here) is still hair raising. John Williams, a sailer, exterminated the inhabitants of two houses – one of them being the Marrs. Timothy Marr was a shopkeeper. He had a “pretty and amiable” wife; he had an eight month old baby; he had a shop boy; and he had a female servant. At around midnight on December 7th, 1811, he called downstairs to the servant to go out and purchase some oysters for the family supper. (I love details like this – what Barthes called the punctum, the unnecessarily specific – for it is in such whirls of details that we explorers in the grotesque get close, oh so close, to the very madly beating heart, the very touch of vertigo, out of which the still voice of capital crime is heard). Lucky woman departs on her errand; unlucky household, no. 29, Ratcliff Highway, is then visited by Mr. Williams. Who, as De Quincey writes, worked as Titian reportedly painted, with his best clothes on.

“Into this perilous region it was that, on a Saturday night in December,
Mr. Williams, whom we suppose to have long since made his coup d'essai,
forced his way through the crowded streets, bound on business. To say, was
to do. And this night he had said to himself secretly, that he would
execute a design which he had already sketched, and which, when finished,
was destined on the following day to strike consternation into 'all that
mighty heart' of London, from centre to circumference. It was afterwards
remembered that he had quitted his lodgings on this dark errand about
eleven o'clock P. M.; not that he meant to begin so soon: but he needed to
reconnoitre. He carried his tools closely buttoned up under his loose
roomy coat. It was in harmony with the general subtlety of his character,
and his polished hatred of brutality, that by universal agreement his
manners were distinguished for exquisite suavity: the tiger's heart was
masked by the most insinuating and snaky refinement. All his acquaintances
afterwards described his dissimulation as so ready and so perfect, that
if, in making his way through the streets, always so crowded on a Saturday
night in neighborhoods so poor, he had accidentally jostled any person, he
would (as they were all satisfied) have stopped to offer the most
gentlemanly apologies: with his devilish heart brooding over the most
hellish of purposes, he would yet have paused to express a benign hope
that the huge mallet, buttoned up under his elegant surtout, with a view
to the little business that awaited him about ninety minutes further on,
had not inflicted any pain on the stranger with whom he had come into
collision. Titian, I believe, but certainly Rubens, and perhaps Vandyke,
made it a rule never to practise his art but in full dress--point ruffles,
bag wig, and diamond-hilted sword; and Mr. Williams, there is reason to
believe, when he went out for a grand compound massacre (in another sense,
one might have applied to it the Oxford phrase of _going out as Grand
Compounder_), always assumed black silk stockings and pumps; nor would he
on any account have degraded his position as an artist by wearing a
morning gown. In his second great performance, it was particularly noticed
and recorded by the one sole trembling man, who under killing agonies of
fear was compelled (as the reader will find) from a secret stand to become
the solitary spectator of his atrocities, that Mr. Williams wore a long
blue frock, of the very finest cloth, and richly lined with silk. Amongst
the anecdotes which circulated about him, it was also said at the time,
that Mr. Williams employed the first of dentists, and also the first of
chiropodists. On no account would he patronize any second-rate skill. And
beyond a doubt, in that perilous little branch of business which was
practised by himself, he might be regarded as the most aristocratic and
fastidious of artists.”

In the event, the night watchman had seen Williams acting suspicious, went in and told Marr, helped him draw down the shutters for the night, and left. After which Willams pounced – the shutters being down meant that he could do his work without being seen from the outside, and the next thing to do was to gain the door before it was locked.
To think was to do:

“… one turn of the key, and the murderer would have been locked out. In,
therefore, he bolted, and by a dexterous movement of his left hand, no doubt, turned the key, without letting Marr perceive this fatal stratagem.
It is really wonderful and most interesting to pursue the successive steps
of this monster, and to notice the absolute certainty with which the
silent hieroglyphics of the case betray to us the whole process and
movements of the bloody drama, not less surely and fully than if we had
been ourselves hidden in Marr's shop, or had looked down from the heavens
of mercy upon this hell-kite, that knew not what mercy meant.”

In this brief passage, De Quincey spills the beans – this is exactly the format and the feeling of real crime stories. We participate as victims without being bloodied, and as gods insofar as not a sparrow falls – or not a fingerprint is left – without us knowing it – the lie at the very center of the genre. We are neither gods nor victims, but some huddled, obsessed thing between, and our interest in these hell-kites, these predators, is not composed entirely of repulsion.

To read about these crimes is one thing – but remember Mary Kelly. Nicholls skips the discovery of her body, but true ripperologists know the story. Discovered the morning of November 9, 1888 at 13 Miller’s Court, by a man named Bowyer who was there to collect rent for a man named McCarthy - tried her door, found it locked - peeped in the curtains and saw her mutilated body – raced to McCarthy, who contacted the police – and then accompanied two inspectors, Beck and Walter Dew, into the small crib that had served as Kelly’s abbatoir. Dew, apparently, was haunted by the scene – McCarthy told newspapers he couldn’t get it out of his mind. The onlookers, the discoverers, the one’s who narrowly escape – those are the ones who slip in and out of real crime books. They interest LI almost as much as the murderers and victims. I have always been fascinated by the accident of being spared.