May 29, 2015 5:45 pm
Mark Blacklock’s first novel is an audacious exercise in mimicry. Yet it is an utterly appropriate one, too: through a series of letters, witness statements and assorted official documents, Blacklock assumes the voice of one of Britain’s most notorious hoaxers, John Humble, aka “Wearside Jack”, the man who assumed the voice of the Yorkshire Ripper.In 1979, Humble sent a tape recording to Chief Constable George Oldfield, the man leading the hunt for the serial killer who, over the previous 10 years, had murdered 10 women and assaulted several others throughout the north of England. Played at a televised press conference, the tape — a two-minute low-fi recording of Humble taunting Oldfield — had the makings of a breakthrough in the Yorkshire Ripper case: “I’m Jack. I see you are still having no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you, George, but Lord, you are no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started.” Dialect specialists pinned the accent down to the Castletown area of Sunderland, in Wearside, northeast England. A wild goose chase ensued, with more than 40,000 Sunderland-born suspects interviewed.
This was a gift to the actual Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, a West Yorkshireman who was questioned nine times before his eventual arrest in 1981. He said that after hearing the tape he felt “safe” — safe enough to murder three more women as detectives looked elsewhere. The hunt plagued Oldfield. Burnt out, he suffered a heart attack. He never returned to the case, and died in 1985.
But what of Humble? Before sending the tape, the hoaxer had also sent three letters purporting to come from the Ripper, two addressed to Oldfield and one to the Daily Mirror newspaper. When West Yorkshire Police decided to review the case in 2005, DNA advances linked Humble to one of the envelopes he had licked. Detectives found him, alcoholic and unemployed, living with his brother on the Ford Estate in Sunderland. The living conditions were described as “squalid”. In 2006, Humble, then 50, received an eight-year prison sentence for perverting the course of justice; he had apparently been inspired by a library book he had borrowed (and never returned) about the Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper.
Blacklock, who also hails from Sunderland, portrays Humble as a classic unreliable narrator. Sly, yet not entirely unsympathetic, he pesters the ghost of Oldfield from his prison cell in Leeds with a batch of letters that are a compelling mess of bad grammar, rambling reveals and local dialect.
Blacklock has the voice down pat, with the same insidiously familiar tone as Humble’s tape or his original letters: “Thing is George there was a time that summer everyone was listening to my voice I was listening to my voice you couldn’t not listen to my voice it was playing everywhere wasn’t it.” A picture emerges not only of prison life, but also of the lonely, thwarted existence that led to it.
Then there are other more obviously fictional pieces: poems, two stream-of-consciousness monologues from a younger Humble and a lurid horror story titled “Yours Sincerely, Jack the Ripper”, purportedly written by Robert Blake. This, presumably, is a variation on Robert Psycho Bloch’s 1943 story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”. Blacklock deftly captures the trashy popular mythologising of the original Ripper murders; his yarn tellingly ends with the words “I’m Jack” — a pulp-fiction endorsement for Humble the fantasist.Fleshing the story out further are the numerous official documents interspersed among Humble’s one-way dispatches: police transcripts, housing association letters, graphology reports, newspaper cuttings. Some are taken straight from real-life sources, although not necessarily relating to Humble; others have been written by Blacklock. All of them, though, are orderly, businesslike and serious, unlike Humble’s wayward outpourings. The contrast — a hierarchy of tone, style and content — magnifies Humble’s lonely position on the bottom rung of society’s ladder.
I’m Jack doesn’t have the intensity of Gordon Burn’s immersive 1984 take on the life of Peter Sutcliffe, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, or of David Peace’s Red Riding quartet, which have the Yorkshire Ripper investigation as their background. Its tone is more mischievous, with a vein of dark, crafty humour — though the overall effect is sombre. Blacklock’s Humble is impossible to like; yet by the end it is almost impossible not to feel sorry for him.
I’m Jack, by Mark Blacklock, Granta, RRP£12.99, 240 pages
Austin Collings is the author of ‘The Myth of Brilliant Summers’ (Pariah Press)