Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Ripper

The Ripper, by William Dobson
December, 1981  Signet Books

I’d never heard of this obscure and apparently scarce Signet PBO until I recently came across it at the Frisco Half Price Books, of all places – I’ve been going there off and on for the past 20 years, and it’s certainly not a bookstore where you can expect to find rare books. Of course they wanted four bucks for it, but I saw copies went for much higher online, and in my usual high spirits I figured what the hell and bought the damn thing. 

A big thanks to Will Errickson, who did a post on author Michael Butterworth, credited as “William Dobson” here on The Ripper and his other Signet PBOs. Curiously though the book is copyright under Butterworth’s real name, despite there being a bio at the end of the book for William Dobson! There must have been an interesting story with Butterworth, as he was a British author who lived in London, but it looks like The Ripper and his other Signet books were only published in the United States. Curious why the novels weren’t published in his home country, as The Ripper is so British it hurts – written in that same haughty, patronizing tone typical of British pulp. 

But then, the novel’s really more of a Mystery, just wrapped up in the sleazy trappings familiar from many Signet PBO thrillers of the era. In fact the back cover copy and the first page preview go out of their way to hype the kinkiness of the book, calling out the sleazy proclivities of several of the characters. But, as you’ll no doubt be unsurprised to learn given the British origin of the novel, such material turns out to be scant at best in the narrative itself. The very few sex scenes are all off-page, and those sleazy proclivities are essentially info-dumped to us in bald narratorial exposition. Even the murders, which essentially would be the biggest draw of the book, are for the most with over and done with in a jiffy, Butterworth only vaguely describing the gore. 

That said, there is a very nice (and British) dark comic vibe to the novel; Butterworth basically just has fun spoofing various upper-crust English people and then killing them off; the humor is especially dark in a ghoulish sequence in which a particular character is murdered while sitting in a car, but the body is not discovered until after the novel’s events have concluded – and Butterworth occasionally cuts back to the corpse, avidly detailing its latest state of vomit-inducing decay. But man that “British” vibe really just kills the book…I mean speaking of “upper crust,” that’s really how the book is written, that sort of “I’m not taking this seriously, dear reader, so I hope you don’t, either!” vibe that I’ve found is so common in British pulp novels. 

So, The Ripper is a murder mystery, with the mystery of course being who the Ripper is. A serial killer operating in Soho and environs, the Ripper is known for slashing wide open the mouths and throats of his victims and then stabbing them until their eviscera is spilled out everywhere; he kills men and women, and the novel opens with the Ripper in the act, chasing a young woman named Eunice through the darkened, early-morning streets of Soho. An effective scene, very much on the horror side, with the Ripper almost superhuman, but here we get a taste of what Butterworth will do throughout the majority of the novel: lots of pages focused on the thoughts of the soon-to-be victim, followed by a quick chase, followed by an even quicker death. 

Essentially, The Ripper is comprised of various one-off characters going about this or that, or thinking about this or that, and then the Ripper comes out of nowhere and slashes them and they’re dead. So in a way it’s basically the usual horror novel template. Our hero, such as he is, turns out to be a private investigator named Jack Shepherd, who apparently looks like Clint Eastwood despite being an alcoholic who spends most of his days drinking, avoiding bill collectors, and sleeping in his office. This being England and all, Shepherd cannot be confused with an American P.I., meaning he doesn’t have a gun. And nor do the police Shepherd occasionally runs afoul of carry guns. Like Jay Leno would say in his stand-up act back in the ‘80s when he guest-hosted on Carson, all the cops can do over there is yell, “Stop! Or I’ll yell ‘Stop’ again!” 

But then, Shepherd’s too much of a lush to even carry a gun. In his sequences he’s desperately counting the hours until he can have a drink, and when he does drink he gets so smashed he passes out in his office – even leaving the downstairs door unlocked at one point, despite being in the midst of the Ripper case. What I mean to say is, he doesn’t acquit himself well, at least in the capacity of a bad-ass hero, but then Butterworth’s intent here seems to be how Shepherd becomes a new man in the course of the case; in that regard, The Ripper is more than just a bloody thriller, with actual character content. 

Shepherd’s brought onto the case by the elderly parents of the first Ripper victim, a pastor and his grim-faced wife. They don’t show much actual sadness over their daughter’s murder, truth be told, more concerned with how she “lost her way” and went down the wrong path and etc. At length we’ll learn that Eunice, their daughter, was a “cigarette girl,” a sort of topless hostess in a Soho bar where guys would pay extra to squeeze her boobs. Shepherd in the course of his investigation will go to this place, the Spooky Club, fairly often, but Butterworth does little to bring the sleazy environs to life; even here the “I’m not taking this seriously” vibe rules supreme, with Shepherd usually more embarrassed for the girls and their topless states. 

But as mentioned the author does have tongue in cheek; one of the Ripper’s earliest victims is a cad of the first order, an art teacher named Dawlish who is a notorious ladykiller (we even learn that he banged both bridesmaids on the day of his wedding…and his mother-in-law!). We meet Dawlish in the act, getting it on with a horny babe who poses nude for his class, and here we see in another horror-esque setpiece in the darkened university building that the Ripper is very inclusive in his kills – this isn’t a serial killer who only does in defenseless women. 

Butterworth periodically delivers short chapters in italics on the thoughts of “a death-dealer,” and these are the first-person recountings of the Ripper, who we learn enjoys his work. The “Ripper” tag comes from the press, which begins to suspect that this serial killer is the 1980s version of Jack the Ripper. But whereas Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes, this Ripper seems to kill people willy-nilly. While authorities don’t believe anything links the victims, Jack Shepherd will of course learn there’s more to the story in the course of his investigation. 

It's not an action-packed novel by any means. We’ll have various one-off characters show up for a few pages, be quickly dispatched, and then we’ll go back to Shepherd as he drinks his way through the case. He manages to get laid, at least; Dawlish’s widow, Moira, takes an immediate shine to Shepherd – indeed, it is she who claims he looks like Clint Eastwood – and beds him soon after meeting. But to give an indication of how prissily “British” this novel is…well, we get dialog like this: “If you wouldn’t very much mind, I would like you to take me again.” I mean folks if I only had a dime… Seriously, though, the book’s so British it hurts – and that’s pretty much all we get in the sleaze and exploitation departments. 

The Shepherd-Moira romance organically develops, and is one of the better parts of the novel. It starts hot, gets cool, then gets hot again, developing into something more lasting. I liked how Butterworth handled it, and while Moira doesn’t have much to do in the novel, she at least comes off as a believable character, one the reader worries about along with Shepherd when Moira expectedly runs into trouble. This is due to Shepherd doggedly pursuing his leads…actually, that’s overselling what Shepherd does in the novel. He basically calls people and drives places on occasion. There’s absolutely nothing in the way of a physical confrontation or any kind of action on his part. 

I guess the only thing that separates The Ripper from a murder mystery of decades before is the increased focus on kink and gore, but as mentioned neither are dwelled on much at all. In fact this is one of those novels where I wondered why the author even wrote it, as there’s nothing particularly memorable or novel on display. The outing of the Ripper’s identity might be it, but it’s such a curveball – though believable, given the small cast of characters we’ve been given – that it more so leaves the reader scratching his head; this is another one of those mysteries that climax with characters expositing on why this or that happened, explaining everything to the reader, like the end of just about every episode of Scooby-Doo

Another thing marking this mystery as a bit more risque is the development, late in the book, that one of the female victims was not only a junkie but also in the midst of a lesbian affair; this entails a nicely-done scene where Shepherd talks to an older cabaret singer who was in a relationship with the victim – a scene that has a surprising climax, if a bit unbelievable. Actually, a lot of The Ripper turns out to be unbelievable in retrospect, given the surprise outing of the Ripper’s identity at book’s end. 

All told I was kind of “blah” about The Ripper. It was just a bit too stuffy, and some of the prose was too ornate. I did enjoy the dark humor of it, though, and Shepherd’s blossoming relationship with Moira was nicely handled. And, at 188 big-print pages, it really wasn’t much of a time commitment. I wouldn’t recommend paying for one of the exorbitantly-priced copies currently listed on the web, but if you too someday happen to come across a copy for a couple bucks at a used bookstore, you might as well pick it up. I mean what the hell, right?


Drew Salzen said...

Wow, this is quite a find for me, as I had no idea that Butterworth had written this or any of the books Will mentions in his blog (which I clicked on after reading your review). I have been reading Micheal Butterworth for decades, picking up the odd title here and there and loving them, but had never come across the Signet titles in any biblios of him. And yes, there are two Butterworths - the living one I first read as a teenager with 'The Time Of The Hawklords' and 'Queens Of Deleria' as a Hawkwind fan; I've also read a couple of the Space 1999 books. More importantly, as half of Savoy he and the late David Britton published some of the most out there fiction of the time with Lord Horror, and made some great records with PJ Proby at his most drunk and dissolute. Savoy is a story in itself. David was very encouraging to me when I started writing, and sent me all the Jack Trevor Story books they'd published and been bankrupted by just because they had stock and I'd found one seven years after publication and wrote to see if I could get any more as they weren't in shops and I though JTS was some kind of genius (he wasn't, but I still think he's a great writer).

But that's another Butterworth. He wouldn't have written these Signet books. I make Will right that it's Mike Butterworth who used to write comics and work on women's magazines for Amalgamated/Fleetway, a large comics and magazine publisher in the UK from the 1890 to the 1980s, and now long gone, swallowed up in mergers.

This Mike Butterworth is known to comics fans as the author of 'The Trigan Empire' a sci-fi strip which is legendary in those circles and reprinted several times in book form. He also wrote picture library monthlies featuring WW2 air ace Battler Britton, alongside Michael Moorcock. After leaving Fleetway, he wrote a string of crime novels for the Collins Crime Club, which were divided between the serious and those with a string of extrememly dark humour, involving young men carting their dead rich Uncle's corpse in a wheelchair around the casinos of Monte Carlo, undertakers who defoed the KGB and MI5 to steal Russian Tsarist diamonds from coffins; attempts to disinter Karl Marx and sell his bones like holy relics to the Russians and the Chinese. he also did some gothic romances under his wife's name. He had a great turn of phrase, a nice line in sardonic dialogue, and is very, very British in his tone.

Oh dear, just when I thought I'd picked up most of his books finally, I find the list gets longer. Thanks, Joe & Will, from my bank manager...

Blog is still great, Joe. Health and life have meant commentuing anywhere has been restricted for ages, but I'm still looking in.

Joe Kenney said...

Hi, thanks for the comment, and great to hear from you again! And thanks for the notes on the two Michael Butterworths...I completely spaced that the OTHER Butterworth was the guy who wrote the Hawkwind tie-ins. I mentioned them in my review of Joe Banks's Hawkwind book the other month; I was trying to read the first novel at the time, but it was just such a chore I couldn't finish it. I'm not sure what it was about it, but I just could not maintain any enthusiasm for it. Actually, maybe it needed a little levity or at least not to take itself so seriously. Actually, that's one of the reasons I've never been able to get into Space: 1999 (ie, the overly serious nature), so it's totally in-line that the other Butterworth would write a novelization of that series! I much prefer UFO!

Thanks again for writing, and I hope you are doing well!

Drew Salzen said...

Hi Joe - don't start me on UFO! I was a toddler raised on Gerry Anderson, who is a God to those boys/men of a certain age in the UK. I watched the first episode when it was first broadcast in 1970, aged six, and have been a fanboy ever since. I wanted to be Ed Straker when I grew up (when I didn't want to be Jason King!) Namedropping - my aunty and uncle went to school with George Sewell (Alec Freeman), whose mum ran a florists in South Tottenham and whose dad George Snr was a lieutenant in London gangster Jack Spot's racetrack gangs. My mate's dad also knew George, and he had the unpublished mss of George Snr's ghosted memoirs, which were fascinating. My mate says they're around somewhere in the house still, but I'd love to get them in print.

I digress as usual, but for a reason. My mate is also a big Hawks fan, and can't stand those books. I read them at 14 when they came out, and loved them. I read them again at 30 and thought they were terrible. But I still have them, and might try again. I have a suspicion that the style of the first book is actually supposed to be a pastiche/parody of thirties SF pulps, as that was trendy in new wave SF circles at the time, and was also very Hawks (the sleeve of Astounding Sounds Amazing Music, and the inner bag of the original press are a dead giveaway for this). I suspect I'll hate them and not finish them, but in light of my theory I'm game to try... Y'know, MB is a nice bloke and a decent writer but you're quite right - like a lot of writers spawned by the new wave of sf in the UK, he does tend to be a tad serious. Incidentally,I note that I mistyped the David Britton was good to me and sent books, etc - I meant Mike Butterworth, which is why i have a soft spot for him.

I've got Joe Bank's book, and it's superb. By far the best of its type. I'd also recommend Keep It Together, Rich Deakin's book on the Social Deviants and The Pink Fairies, as the Hawks and the Fairies are intertwined in the seventies. Carol Clerk's Hawkwind biog is very straightforward by comparison, and great fun, especially as the second half of it mostly consists of musos moaning about Dave Brock gypping them, and Brock replying 'When I said that, what I rteally meant was...'

But back to Michael Butterworth the crime writer - X Marks The Spot, Remains To Be Seen, and Festival are worth looking out for - the first two are darkly comic capers, the third a serious thriller about a plot to test chemical warfare on a bunch of hippies at a rock fest.

Glorious Trash is never less than interesting, even when it's about books I wouldn't usually read. And it's become a life thing now. Excellent work and excellent staying power, Joe!