Author interview: Stephen Hunter

Stephen Hunter, the author of I, Ripper, believes he has cracked the case.

He says his research into the infamous Whitechapel prostitute murders of 1888 enabled him to figure out the identity of elusive Jack the Ripper.

“It’s nothing forensic,” Hunter says. “But it’s a way of organizing the information that, as far as I can tell, is unprecedented. It’s a very provocative way of connecting the dots that I consider to be a valuable piece of intellectual property.”

Alas, I, Ripper isn’t the book that shares Hunter’s theory. This book is a bloody good thriller, however.

The Baltimore-based author puts readers inside the mind of the London serial killer by ghostwriting passages of Jack’s darkly detailed diary.

Hunter’s prose also re-creates the sites, the people and the vibe of dodgy Whitechapel so vividly that you’ll feel like you’re there alongside Jack — or shadowing Jeb, the newspaper reporter whose narrative is also showcased.

I, Ripper is distinctly different from Hunter’s usual work. He’s best known for his bestselling series about Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger, the Gun Whisperer. But it’s a gripping read and quite possibly the best book he has written.

We chatted with Hunter about Jack lore and I, Ripper.

Why do you think the story of Jack the Ripper, who claimed five victims more than 125 years ago, endures in our collective consciousness?

It wasn’t merely that he killed. It was the incredible intensity that he unleashed on the bodies after he killed. It was the horror of the murder scenes. Perhaps men at war or men in operating theaters had seen this kind of carnage. But in a civilian milieu, it was unheard of, particularly the murder of Mary Jane Kelly, the last of the five.

It was the fact that Jack was either incredibly brilliant or incredibly lucky. There were several incidences where Jack literally had to be in the shadows, 10 feet from the police, yet they missed him. He held it together and he vanished. The near-misses, I think, elevated him to mythical status.

And it was the beginning of the modern “yellow journalism” age. London had more than 50 daily newspapers, all in intense competition with each other, particularly for street sales. This environment created a seething, bubbling pot into which Jack marched to the center of attention.

The book addresses Jack’s famous “Dear Boss” letter to the press, written in red ink, in which he delights in his butchery, taunts the police and gives himself the name Jack the Ripper. Most experts agree that a disreputable journalist actually wrote the letter. Isn’t that true?

Absolutely. But the “Dear Boss” letter put a stamp on Jack that was mythic from the beginning. And the brilliance of the construction of the name. What a great name for a homicidal killer: Jack the Ripper! It’s just a superb bit of onomatopoeic poetry. Heard once, it’s lodged in your mind forever.

Whoever came up with that could have become the world’s greatest advertising salesman. It’s an extraordinarily vivid name.

The true author of the letter must have been tormented afterward, either because he felt shame or because he could never claim credit.

If it were me, my vanity would quickly overcome my shame. I would want everyone to know that I had written this little masterpiece of perversity.

When you write a book like this, in which you live inside the head of a twisted killer, does it ever get to you? Does it give you bad dreams?

I do have bad dreams, which I stifle with large amounts of bourbon.

I knew going in that this would be a very violent, very bloody book. In fact, my first impulse was to publish it under a pseudonym, because I have a lot of readers who, while they thrill at good-versus-bad gunfights, might not be particularly amused by the kind of explicit butchery that I felt obligated to portray.

That’s why I make it painfully clear from the start what kind of book this was. Ergo the first sentence (When I cut the woman’s throat, her eyes portrayed not pain not fear but utter confusion.) If you read that first sentence and then make a conscious decision to continue reading the book, then you have no right to complain about the violence and the gore. You were given fair warning.

So I don’t want to hear if you were offended. You had plenty of chances to bail out.

I, Ripper

by Stephen Hunter

Simon & Schuster, $27.99