Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website maartensity.com. The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.
No one who has an interest in the history of London can fail to be at once intrigued and disturbed by this masterful work. It is an absorbing narrative with many elements of a meta-narrative to appeal to the intellectually inclined. What intrigued me is the author's awareness of the ultimate futility of trying to determine the truth of the Ripper murders with any final certainty, while at the same time managing to weave such a self-assured story.
The novel suggests that the myth of Jack the Ripper "gave birth" to the twentieth century, or one could say that the spirit of "his" myth can be found in the atrocities of the 20th century. Yet I believe the culture on the ground that surrounded those notorious East End murders is still being investigated with fresh zeal today. I own a copy of Sarah Wise's The Blackest Streets, published just last year, which has as its subject the poorest of the poor living in the Old Nichol towards the end of the 19th century. The "Old Nichol Gang" make an important cameo in From Hell, and in the fear they created by their earlier murders they played an important role in Mary Kelly's decision to initiate blackmail. (Not everyone agrees that a specific gang called the Old Nichol Gang existed, but there is little doubt that a mob was around in the Old Nichol, and gangs of all sorts). Both groups (women in the East End and people living in the Old Nichol) had poverty in common.
The subject of From Hell is sinister and disturbing, no less for the suggestions of conspiracy than for the horrendous murders themselves. However the novel is a reminder that reality is layered, and that the nature of that layered reality is not the solid thing we suppose it to be.