by: Patricia Cornwell
Publisher: Berkley Books (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
Copyright: 2002, ISBN: 
Cover: Peter Cotton, Walter Harper
Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, December 15, 2003
Summary: The real identity of London’s Jack The Ripper? This book comes up with a better answer than most. The real value is the presentation of police history.
This is the second book in this particular genre to have been reviewed here. The first, BLACK DAHLIA AVENTER – THE TRUE STORY, by Steve Hodel (reviewed here May 2003), concerned the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, aka, the Black Dahlia. Except for the writing, there was nothing much to appreciate in Hodel’s criminal reconstruction story. Likewise, in Patricia Cornwell’s PORTRAIT OF A KILLER, we are swimming in a thimble.
The very first book this reviewer read about Jack the Ripper, who killed five prostitutes during the fall of 1888 in London’s Whitechapel area, attempted to make a case that the Ripper was really the Duke of Clarence, son of the Prince of Wales. Cornwell rightfully dismisses this idea. She instead has latched onto Walter Sickert, a late 19th century actor turned painter, general rouge and obvious misogynist. Walter Sickert had problems. No doubt. But could he have been the Jack the Ripper? Well, certainly he could have been. Therein is the problem.
Cornwell’s strongest evidence supporting her contention are the watermarks on stationary Jack the Ripper used to write letters taunting the police and the mitochondrial DNA lifted off the postage stamps and envelops of those letters. The more snippets of information one picks up on these tenuous pieces of evidence in reading the book, the more tenuous the pieces become. Long before reaching that conclusion however, you may be bothered by the author’s sudden declaration that Walter Sickert was in fact Jack the Ripper without so much as a preamble of evidence to support the declaration. The declaration occurs on page 6. Reason becomes frayed filaments of words from that point on. There is nothing here one would even call circumstantial which points to Sickert as Jack the Ripper. Sickert was a self-absorbed, morally bankrupt low-life masquerading as an artist who died in January 1942.
It is obvious that Cornwell put a lot of research into this book. It shows. But in attempting to push her thesis, she manages to trip all the reader-beware alarms one brings to these criminal-history reconstructions. It is not the facts that are the problem, it is the way the facts are arranged. We flip in and out of Sickert’s life like a loop-the-loop.
The author is at her best when discussing the history of Scotland Yard and the establishment of municipal police as social institutions. Here she drops the facts into place and they remain as an effective backdrop illuminating how the police handled the gruesome murders before the science of forensics became a staple of criminal investigations. For these little nuggets, PORTRAIT OF A KILLER is worth reading.