Granta Books, 240pp, £12.99
The dark shadow of Peter Sutcliffe still looms long across West Yorkshire. Even today, 34 years after his arrest, many still have a Sutcliffe story to relate: of being stopped on the M62 for sporting a beard; of seeing the flapping tape of a police cordon on a mizzling morning in Halifax; of drinking with the man himself.
The Yorkshire Ripper case raised questions concerning poverty and prostitution, police ineptitude and representations of the north and only the dark depravity of the recent Jimmy Savile revelations have knocked Sutcliffe from his position as bogeyman number one. No other British criminal has inspired quite so much literature. The Sutcliffe canon is bulging, from the forensic, occultist writings of Gordon Burn and David Peace to the epic poetry of The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper by Blake Morrison, the academic feminism of The Streetcleaner by Nicole Ward Jouve and a plethora of sensationalist tabloid tomes. We can add to this list Mark Blacklock’s intriguing debut, I’m Jack, written to remind us just how deeply embedded in the northern psyche Sutcliffe was – and still is.
Jack is Wearside Jack, also known as John Humble, the then 22-year-old hoaxer whose goading missives derailed the police investigations throughout 1978-79. Written as a deranged dossier of letters, transcripts, psychiatric reports and prison prose, Blacklock’s rendering of this strange subplot is an anti-novelistic discourse on notoriety, an adjunct to a far more horrific case. Humble is not a monster; he is a loser, a victim of industrial decline in an era when the pits and shipyards of Wearside and Durham were facing closure. It was during Humble’s 12-month taunting of the investigation that Margaret Thatcher rose to the premiership and embarked upon a scorched-earth policy towards such industries.
In I’m Jack, Humble’s early life is defined by adolescent misdemeanours and a drunken nightclub skirmish with some bouncers and police, after which authority is rejected. The crimes he commits, adrift in a sea of booze, are born of boredom rather than spite, a fleeting play for power.
With little to go on, the capturing of Humble’s voice – so cold and detached on that tape recording sent to Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield – is note perfect, the distinct Mackem vernacular maintained throughout. What elevates this beyond a mere footnote to Sutcliffe’s story was Humble’s arrest in 2005 on four charges of perverting the course of justice, for which he received a sentence of eight years. Police procedure and technology had advanced but Humble had not; upon being taken in, he was too drunk to
Here, Blacklock takes a bold leap, piecing together the fragments of a mundane life and stepping deeper into Humble’s imagination through letters sent from the Armley and Altcourse prisons to Oldfield, who retired in 1983 and died two years later. Digressions and dead ends abound: having read Alan Sillitoe’s short story “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” in jail, Humble briefly assumes the heroic backstory of its protagonist as his own. Elsewhere, he refers to the obscure 1980 Ripper cash-in book I’m Jack: the Police Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, while also being privy to letters received from the likes of Freda, a fascinated follower of the media construct of Wearside Jack, and Norris, a self-elected expert on the case.
Blacklock’s novel is ultimately about the consequences of actions and being stuck in the past; about those lonely souls attracted to criminal cases and what it means to be a victim. It does not deal directly with Sutcliffe’s victims, who stalk the text, making fleeting appearances; what the book perhaps lacks among its structural trickery is a voice for them. We are left only with Humble’s distortions of truth and all-pervading sense of time-wasted regret.
Instead, Blacklock gives a voice to Sunderland, a maligned city with a rich history that found itself dragged into this mess and therefore became a civic victim of sorts through association. Anyone familiar with the area in the 1970s and 1980s will find that Blacklock has accurately captured the feel for a place whose strong fighting spirit still endures despite being continually overlooked for regeneration and financial assistance when cities such as Newcastle and Leeds have periodically flourished.
There is an air of grubby menace throughout I’m Jack but mainly it is melancholy that dominates. That, perhaps, is the true message here: how sad and far-reaching the senseless actions of pathetic men can be.