A review of this — 2 years ago
This book was on my radar when it came out a decade ago. Not being a Ripper scholar (knowing the basic history/lore of the killings and a few of the alternative theories about his identity), I approached the book with a fairly open mind.
“Portrait of a Killer” is a quick read and fairly entertaining for anyone who enjoys true crime stories. Cornwell spent six years working in forensics, so her approach is definitely CSI meets Jack the Ripper. Her claim that famous British artist Walter Sickert was the true identity of the infamous Jack the Ripper is mainly based on comparisons of watermarks in Sickert/Ripper letters (as well as supplies used to create them) and a DNA match from a Ripper letter and several Sickert letters. Unfortunately, the childless Sickert was cremated and therefore at this time there is no way we can verify if the DNA matches are actually his DNA. Cornwell is pretty straightforward about this hiccup in her case, and uses masses of other more coincidental items to back up her theory.
Most of Cornwell’s other “evidence” is based on her interpretations of Sickert’s often dark and violent artwork, for which he often used used prostitutes as models. Although some of the facts are quite interesting (a painting titled “Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom” which was actually Sickert’s bedroom at the time) and strengthen her case, a lot of seemed like fairly large stretches. Much of the art referenced in the book was not reprinted (probably due to difficulty getting permission when the subject of the book was known), so I looked many of them up online. Cornwell frequently claims Sickert’s subjects look like their throats have been slashed, but when you look at the picture it is clear that they are wearing a necklace. She claims “The Fair at Night, Dieppe” is actually what Sickert saw as he lurked at the crime scenes, but the painting looks like a crowded fair. The frequency of these weak, perception-based “clues” do more to take away from Cornwell’s argument than back it up as the reader repeatedly wonders if she is grasping at straws.
There are enough strong clues to indicate that Sickert is a good suspect, but definitely not enough to mark the “Case Closed”. Even if it is his DNA on the letters, there is no way to know if he was just another of many writing fake Ripper letters at the time. The first half of the book is much stronger and better written than the second, which seems jumbled, rushed, and trails off in the end. Her claims that Jack the Ripper was responsible for many more murders than he is accredited is hardly backed up at all, and most of Sickert’s adult life is left blurry unless it specifically fits into her theories. Did he do it? Maybe, but Cornwell hasn’t proved it to my mind yet.