Yorkshire Ripper - The Secret Murders
Chris Clarke, Tim Tate
That Peter Sutcliffe attacked more women than he was convicted for is an open secret. As early as 1969, he attacked a prostitute in Bradford with a stone in a sock with what was almost certainly deadly intent. Despite her being traced and interviewed, she declined to press charges and the earliest opportunity to stop Sutcliffe from killing was lost. It was only the first in a slew of errors made by West Yorkshire police that allowed him to operate unmolested until he was caught by accident in 1980.
Clarke and Tate aver that this missed opportunity was merely the tip of a horrific catalogue of crimes that were never attributed to Sutcliffe - partly due to incompetence, but also as part of a semi-deliberate effort to hide that incompetence.
The book is at its strongest in its demolition of the notion that Sutcliffe was "mad" (i.e. paranoid schizophrenic) rather than "bad." In what is perhaps the definitive account of his trial in print, they show how Sutcliffe shifted his story between his initial confessions to police to the accounts he gave to psychiatrists. With the lost/suppressed evidence of his specially adapted "killing trousers," the authors argue persuasively that Sutcliffe derived sexual thrills from his crimes, planned them in advance and took pleasure from their memory. His evasion from capture for all those years was partly down to the police incompetence, but also down to his deliberate and long standing efforts. It is hard to read this section of the book and remain unconvinced that Sutcliffe is sane and was always so.
The authors then take us through a slew of unsolved murders - some 22 in all - and attempt to link Sutcliffe's name to them.
In this, they present a wealth of information about Sutcliffe's life: from his wife Sonia's own mental illness, to the trips made to London and around the country. This provides a backdrop for their reason to expand Sutcliffe's range as far south as the capital. In doing so, they are able to point to murders all over the country as bearing his signatures and as within his reach.
In some cases, they present evidence that is quite compelling, but it is hard to escape the notion that many of the cases they present are tenuous at best. The killing of two prostitutes in London - found strangled with their own hosiery and without signs of other post-morten violence are linked to Sutcliffe purely because he used a ligature in one of his confirmed murders and had reason to visit London around that time. In several of the cases, DNA evidence was retrieved and no match made against Sutcliffe - which presumably rules him out of the frame completely.
Despite this, the authors do make a very measured case, without recourse to sensationalism. In an appendix, they list all his known and suspected murders against a checklist of his acknowledged hall marks, some of which are fairly persuasive - some decidedly less so.
If nothing else, the book serves as a reminder of exactly how difficult it was to find and convict a murderer at this time. Evidence in many of the cases has now been lost, so it remains the case that they remain unsolved and will probably always will be. This immensely readable book may or may not convince you that Peter Sutcliffe was responsible for some of these crimes, but it is nonetheless an intriguing and often poignant look into lives brutally cut short with no answers as to why or by who.
Paul Carpenter: 2016-03-22