New article on The Carmarthen Mystery

Next Tuesday, 14 July, is the publication date for The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns, which includes my article on the Carmarthen mystery. This is an offshoot of my research into the identify of Jack the Ripper’s final victim. Following her death one man, John Rees, came forward to confirm her story that she lived in Wales. The identification was incorrect, but I was intrigued by Rees’s motivation.

At the time of this claim his wife was awaiting trial for murder, after an abortion patient died. Rees himself would soon be charged with procuring abortion and acquitted. Four year’s earlier his wife’s father was also charged with murder after a pregnant woman died in his house. Doctor John Morgan Hopkins, a respected member of the community, claimed not to know the woman and denied that she was pregnant.

My article takes a fresh look at this incident and is one of several new pieces in an anthology edited by the indefatigable Mitzi Szereto.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction best known for his study of 333 Jack the Ripper suspects. 

Jill the Ripper

Last week I was asked about the theory that Jack the Ripper was a woman. This comes from the supposition that a woman, or a man dressed as a woman, could have walked away from the crime scenes without attracting suspicion. Midwives were later suggested, based on the false idea that one of the victims was pregnant. There are eight accusations against specific women, all of whom are discussed in my book about 333 suspects.

One of these stabbed a man in the head, whilst drunk, and said she was Jack the Ripper. Another was accused by a small-town sheriff. None of the others were connected to the murder in their own lifetime. One was invented, one was an alleged victim of Jack the Ripper and another was the wife of a surgeon accused on false evidence. Aleister Crowley mentioned one in a phrase that did not indicate that he suspected her.

Three were convicted murderers, two notorious in England and one in America. Leaving aside gender there is absolutely no evidence connecting any of them to the Whitechapel murders. A Jill the Ripper cannot be disproved, unless the real killer is unmasked, but presently the theory, and the female suspects, sit in the vast category of unlikely possibilities.

 

Know the character’s background

Your story is designed to tell the reader about something extraordinary that happened to the character. Usually it involves a change or journey, separated from their normal and dull routine. Yet that routine shapes their behaviour and response to the new events, being itself shaped by the character’s past. If you want to convince the reader you have to understand what the character was like before the story begins.

To do this you have ask what is a typical Wednesday afternoon or Friday Night for the character? Make it a week or a month and plot out a diary. Who do they interact with? What do they eat? Detail their usual routine, however mundane it might be. Most of this will never be seen by anyone else but little details can be the difference between generic characters and memorable ones.

Ian Fleming told us a lot about James Bond’s food and drink habits, details largely irrelevant to the plot. This helped make the character more believable, allowing readers to picture him in extraordinary and often unbelievable situations. Let your characters exist outside of your story.

Use the right name

Every character needs the right name.

Sometimes the name comes first, and writers draft the person behind it. Sometimes they start with the person’s attributes then pick a name that suits. Readers will make assumptions of age, religion, class, and culture based on that name. Writers can either endorse those perceptions or challenging them by making the character completely different. Explaining those differences becomes part of his or her story. Unusual names will also need explanations.

Historically names tended to be passed down through generations. The significance of the name to the family may impact the character’s relationships with relatives. Creating a family tree going back two generations is a useful exercise. Even if the family are not in the story it helps the writer and reader understand where the character came from.

Ultimately if you invest time getting the name and background right it is more likely that the readers will invest their time following the character’s journey.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction best known for his Jack the Ripper suspect encyclopedia.

Should writers mention the pandemic?

As the COVID restrictions are relaxed in some jurisdictions, there are different opinions on whether writers should incorporate their experiences into their work. Anything set in 2020 will need to reflect the changes in the lives of the characters. Not mentioning the pandemic would be unrealistic but dwelling on it might deter  readers, many of whom turn to fiction to escape. There is also the issue of sensitivity. Many people have lost loved ones to the virus and may not appreciate a sensationalist piece.

During the last few months there has been a spike in the popularity of apocalyptic fiction. Some readers report that it gives them a sense of perspective by showing worse situations. Others want to experience fear to help them emphasise with those who have more reason to fear the pandemic. Another reason is hope.

The two best apocalyptic novels, The Stand and The Road, both conclude at the start of a better world for the surviving characters. As we start to venture out we have an opportunity to make that world.

Doctor Who Season 3, a quick review

In January 2018 I began watching every episode of Doctor Who in chronological order, at the rate of one per week. I wrote reviews of the first two seasons for Whotopia, supplementing my concise comments on individual stories in the Doctor Who Ratings Guide. Whotopia is no longer around so I have decided to make some brief comments on Season 3 in this blog.

This is Doctor Who’s longest season with forty five episodes comprising ten stories. They include shortest and longest stories, one being a prequel to the other and not featuring any of the TARDIS crew. Everything else is four episodes, the ideal length, suiting the reduction to three regular characters. There is a wonderful diveristy in scope and format, ranging chronologically from Ancient Egypt to 700 years after Earth’s destruction and stylistically from comedy to gritty drama.

More than the first two seasons it is noticably influenced by society. There are strong female characters, more adult messages, and criticism of apartheid plus a greater reliance on television and film sources. One of the themes is challenging perceptions and this is apt because of a view that William Hartnell was in poor health. Nonsense. He gives some of his strongest performances towards the end of this season.

Season Three shows the infinite possibilities of the show’s premise. Unconstrained in its ambition, despite sometimes being unrealistic and inconsistent, it is both engaging and entertaining.

We’ll never know Jack

Today marks 23 years since the publication of a book that highlighted a plausible Jack the Ripper suspect. The Secret of Prisoner 1167: Was this Man Jack the Ripper? by James Tully, suggested that James Kelly was responsible for the murders. John Morrison made the same connection in a booklet published eight years earlier.  This week I was asked if Jack the Ripper will ever be identified. My answer was no, and the case of James Kelly illustrates why.

A known user of prostitutes and wife-murderer Kelly was at liberty in 1888, the year of the Ripper murders, having escaped from Broadmoor in January. He returned to the asylum voluntarily in 1927. There is no hard evidence against him or any of the nine others that I identified in my examination of 333 Jack the Ripper suspects as the most plausible. He is also the most recently accused of those ten.

In the last thirty years the number of books about individual suspects has dramatically increased and researchers now, thanks to digitisation of records, have easy access to a wide range of source material. Despite this nobody has managed to build a convincing case against any of the known suspects or identify someone new. The chances of them doing so in the future are, in my opinion, slim.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction best known for his Jack the Ripper suspect encyclopedia.

Reviews Matter

Regular readers of this blog will know of my interest in the 1884 Carmarthen mystery and its tentative connection with Jack the Ripper. I have now written a definitive account of events in The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns, released on 14 July and available for pre-order now from bookshops and Amazon, if you prefer.

Another topic I have touched on before is the importance of reviews. This week I started working on an in-depth article about a 1960s Doctor Who story, assessing how its reputation has changed over time. Reviews are a key piece of evidence, allowing me to compare the reaction of the original audience with that of people who have watched the story since.

In both pieces of work, I have endeavoured to understand and explain the contemporary historical viewpoint which created opinions very different to those shaped by modern values.

Reviews matter to future researchers as well as readers.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction best known for his Jack the Ripper suspect encyclopedia.

Writing opportunities during COVID-19

Writers are sometimes advised to write about what they know. This might include places they have visited or characters that they have met. For the last few months many of us have had a limited opportunity to acquire new knowledge, due to isolation restrictions. There are now options to write about these experiences. Submittable currently lists 26 markets which are open for submissions of personal responses to the coronavirus pandemic. These include opportunities to contribute poetry, short fiction, essays, photography, and film.

This trend will probably continue into film, television, and novels, once those industries return to normal. There is a historical precedent in the many movies about World War II, some of which were made during the conflict. The Oscar in 1946 went to The Best Years of Our Lives, a picture about three servicemen returning to normal life. From crisis comes opportunity, but this may not last.

Harold Russell who lost both his hands in the war, won Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Best Years of our Lives. He is one of two non-professional actors to take this accolade and the only performer to sell his Oscar award at an auction. His stated reason was that he needed money to pay his wife’s medical bills.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction best known for his book on 333 Jack the Ripper suspects.