When Mystery Authors Become Real-Life Detectives: Part 1

Books Features

If Jack the Ripper were still alive, he’d probably rest easy knowing Patricia Cornwell is on his case.

A decade ago, the bestselling mystery novelist spent millions trying to prove that a beloved British painter committed the Ripper killings. Her nonfiction Ripper book—confidently subtitled Case Closed—was laughed out of the true-crime fan club as absurdly incompetent. But Cornwell recently announced she will publish a new Ripper book next year, this time with details of a “royal conspiracy.”

The bigger mystery is why detective-fiction authors often consider themselves real-life crime experts. The list goes all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the mystery genre with three short stories—one of them an attempt to solve an actual murder. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and P.D. James, whose Inspector Dalgliesh became a fave on PBS’s Mystery!, are among others lured by true-crime glamour.

In a new four-part series, Paste reviews the detection skills of these authors, and the verdicts are largely grim. We may never know who committed some infamous crimes, but these writers are often guilty of whipping up theories that make real life read like bad fiction.

We start with Cornwell, a rich, blonde writer from Miami who made a fortune with her novels about Kay Scarpetta, a rich, blonde forensic scientist from Miami. Cornwell says any similarities between author and detective are coincidental. Having reviewed her Jack the Ripper investigation, we have to agree.

The Case of Everyone’s a Critic
“Detective”: Patricia Cornwell
Resume: Ex-journalist, author of blockbuster Kay Scarpetta forensic-science mysteries.
Case: Jack the Ripper serial killings, London, 1888.
Suspect: Walter Sickert, a painter who “confessed” through his art.
Verdict: An ounce of logic is worth a pound of DNA testing.

The first media-sensationalized serial killer case, Jack the Ripper has spawned countless theories. Modern FBI profilers like John Douglas say the Ripper was probably an uneducated, obscure loner. But authors continue to float famous or fiendishly clever suspects.

Walter Sickert, a well-regarded painter, is one of them. He was first named in a 1976 book as part of the wildest Ripper theory, which involved Masonic ritual killings and a Royal Family conspiracy. Authors later made Sickert a lone suspect.

Believers say Sickert confessed through clues in his art. He did make a painting titled Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom, based on his landlady’s surely false story of once having the Ripper as a tenant. He also referenced a different, non-Ripper murder in another painting. Of course, this only proves he was as interested in gory crime as much as anyone else.

Fascinated by Sickert, Cornwell decided to imitate her forensic scientist heroine and commissioned DNA testing to prove he was the killer. She spent millions buying Sickert paintings and letters as evidence. Cornwell allegedly destroyed one of the paintings for DNA tests (which may or may not be true), but it got her decried as a mindless vandal by the British art world nonetheless.

In her 2002 book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed, Cornwell unveiled her big discovery: DNA fingered Sickert as the author of some letters the Ripper sent to the police.

Problem is, experts agree the letters are hoaxes, so all Cornwell proved is that Sickert might have been a prankster, not a killer. Furthermore, she could only use a less reliable form of DNA testing with a big error margin, so Sickert may have no connection at all.

Fellow amateur “Ripperologists” at Casebook.org also bashed Cornwell’s book for its major errors regarding Sickert’s medical history, sex life and whereabouts during the crimes. They accused her of ignoring facts and other suspects that didn’t fit into her theory.

Forced to admit the case was not closed, Cornwell remained defiant. In 2005, she bought full-page ads in British newspapers proclaiming herself the victim of unfair critics. But she offered nothing to support her factual errors, which she continues to promote on her website.

Last month, Cornwell announced she will soon release a second book condemning Sickert, this time with “more information on what [she calls] the ‘royal conspiracy.’”

“I feel that I have cracked it. I believe it’s Sickert, and I believe it now more than ever,” Cornwell told the London Evening Standard. “Will we ever prove it? No—how can you?”

How about with a theory supported by physical evidence? But that’s just the way boring, real-life police officers do it.

Edgar Allan Poe rants about a murder suspect in Part 2, and P.D. James “solves” a murder with a hunch in Part 3. Arthur Conan Doyle tackles pony-slashing and fairies in Part 4.

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