Mark Blacklock - a riveting novel about truth, lies, prison and shame. It is also a profound and furious love letter to Sunderland. It is a puzzle, a hoax, a multi-voice portrait and a virtuoso assemblage of textual elements
Mark Blacklock, I'm Jack, Granta Books, 2015.
In this provocative novel Mark Blacklock portrays the true and complex history of John Humble, aka Wearside Jack, the Ripper Hoaxer, a timewaster and criminal, sympathetic and revolting, the man hidden by a wall of words, a fiction-spinner worthy of textual analysis. In this remarkable work, John Humble leads the reader into an allusive, elusive labyrinth of interpretations, simultaneously hoodwinking and revealing.
I'm Jack is a riveting novel about truth, lies, prison and shame. It is also a profound and furious love letter to Sunderland. It is a puzzle, a hoax, a multi-voice portrait and a virtuoso assemblage of textual elements. I'm Jack announces the arrival of a radically talented and innovative novelist.
A gripping study in self-invention - and, ultimately, self-erasure - Tom McCarthy
Here are dark telegrams from an expertly realised otherness that is Sunderland. Spare. Swift. Smart. And dangerous. Carrying us through maps of shame to rescue a convincing fiction of the past from its sullen entropy - Iain Sinclair
The varied range and wit of his polyphonic chorus are reminiscent of Joe Orton's darkly subversive correspondence pranks... [An] intelligent [and] disturbing slice of noir - Catherine Taylor
Less a novel and more an assault on the senses, I'm Jack cleverly uses inter-textual trickery and deft Mackem parlance to create a portrait of a man obsessed. It is a forensic montage, a frenzied confessional and a stark commentary on the effects of public notoriety. Moving, haunted and necessary - Benjamin Myers
Compelling, troubling, fascinating, a delight to read. It is a sublime anti-novel and a brilliantly original intervention into a most peculiar episode of recent history - James Miller
Absorbing and fascinating. Using multi-layered storytelling, a deep personal knowledge of Sunderland past, present and legend in a believable and hard-hitting blend of fact and imagination, it paints a genuinely disturbing vision of an obsessive, calculating and ultimately self-destructive personality - Bryan Talbot
A deftly executed ventriloquist act, it's anchored in the true story of notorious hoaxer John Humble... The book itself is just as slippery - Hephzibah Anderson
[An] intriguing debut... There is an air of grubby menace throughout - Ben Myers
The ageing Humble is a figure lost on the margins of society: alcoholic, in and out of gaol and lacking any real relationship... [Suggesting] that crime might be understood by looking at the particular social situations that contribute to it, Blacklock presents Humble as far from 'evil' but a melancholic echo of a wider deprivation - Jerome de Groot
By early 1978 West Yorkshire police’s ongoing investigation into the serial killer dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper had reached breaking point. Then, in March, a letter arrived at headquarters addressed to George Oldfield, the assistant chief constable heading the inquiry. Over the course of the next year and three months two more letters were sent, signed “Jack the Ripper”, and, most significantly, a tape, all purporting to be from the killer. The police changed course and focused on Sunderland, from where the communications originated.
In late June of 1979, the recording of “Wearside Jack” taunting the beleaguered Oldfield was broadcast over and over again, becoming seared into public imagination and memory. It played over the airwaves of our local radio station in Sheffield almost as nightly entertainment. From my bedroom window I would stare, transfixed, into the blackness of the garden, wondering if “he” were somewhere out there in the shadows.
South Yorkshire had not been targeted by the Ripper at that point, but on 2 January 1981 Peter Sutcliffe was caught in the lane behind my school, initially arrested for having fake number plates on his car. The young woman he had picked up from the red-light district around the corner a few minutes earlier had the luckiest escape of her life. Yet because of the concentration on Wearside Jack, the inquiry had taken a false and disastrous turn, leaving Sutcliffe, the actual killer, who had by then been interviewed nine times by police, free to murder three more women.
Oldfield was retired from the case due to ill health in late 1979 and died in 1985. One of his many tactical errors was the assertion that the killer craved publicity; his complicity in the crude hoax left his reputation in tatters. Even as Sutcliffe’s trial began, Oldfield still believed the letters and tape were linked to the murders. It was not until 2005 and random DNA testing that John Samuel Humble, a petty criminal in his late 40s from Castletown, Sunderland, was identified as Wearside Jack, charged with perverting the course of justice, and jailed for eight years.
With his first book, Mark Blacklock fits effortlessly into the lineup of accomplished literary chroniclers of the Ripper years, such as David Peace and the late Gordon Burn. In common with Burn, whose outstanding Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son provided forensic biographical details and compelling psychological insights into Sutcliffe’s crimes, Blacklock has fashioned an intelligent, disturbing slice of noir, which falls into no particular category – rather like his subject. He reconstructs Humble’s preferred epistolary style to develop further the “relationship” between Wearside Jack and the now deceased police officer. Blacklock’s Humble continues to address Oldfield in a mock-affectionate, softly menacing tone, complete with all the syntactical idiosyncracies of Humble’s original missives, which set graphologists off in a tailspin.
The narrative is interspersed with police and psychological reports, creative writing exercises, letters to Humble in prison from cranks and obsessives, and an extended piece of pulp fiction. Born in Sunderland in 1974, just prior to the start of Sutcliffe’s spree, Blacklock has the area’s linguistic cadences and landmarks at his fingertips, as well as its cavernous history and quiet desperation. The varied range and wit of his polyphonic chorus are reminiscent of Joe Orton’s darkly subversive correspondence pranks. Humble, as portrayed by Blacklock, is the bored fantasist with few prospects who craves notoriety because no one listens to him down the pub. By turns apologetic, self-pitying and defiant, the man who calls himself “Jackanory” and “Jack the Giant Killer” takes on a new alias when he is freed on licence: the book ends with his application to change his name.
Should we be interested in Humble as a piece of cultural history, the 20th-century foil to his true fascination, Jack the Ripper? The women who Sutcliffe butchered so frenziedly, “the lasses” to whom Humble expresses his own careless misogyny, remain as mere ciphers. Apart from Pat Barker’s exceptional 1984 novel Blow Your House Down and Joan Smith’s ever-relevant essay “There’s Only One Yorkshire Ripper”, there has been little writing by women published on this topic. Instead, the Ripper story – to which Wearside Jack is a pathetic but powerful adjunct – has become a relentless examination of male identity, of violence most horribly, and somehow perpetually, in bloom. - Catherine Taylor
Mark Blacklock’s first novel is an audacious exercise in mimicry. Yet it is an utterly appropriate one, too: through a series of letters, witness statements and assorted official documents, Blacklock assumes the voice of one of Britain’s most notorious hoaxers, John Humble, aka “Wearside Jack”, the man who assumed the voice of the Yorkshire Ripper.
In 1979, Humble sent a tape recording to Chief Constable George Oldfield, the man leading the hunt for the serial killer who, over the previous 10 years, had murdered 10 women and assaulted several others throughout the north of England. Played at a televised press conference, the tape — a two-minute low-fi recording of Humble taunting Oldfield — had the makings of a breakthrough in the Yorkshire Ripper case: “I’m Jack. I see you are still having no luck catching me. I have the greatest respect for you, George, but Lord, you are no nearer catching me now than four years ago when I started.” Dialect specialists pinned the accent down to the Castletown area of Sunderland, in Wearside, northeast England. A wild goose chase ensued, with more than 40,000 Sunderland-born suspects interviewed.
This was a gift to the actual Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, a West Yorkshireman who was questioned nine times before his eventual arrest in 1981. He said that after hearing the tape he felt “safe” — safe enough to murder three more women as detectives looked elsewhere. The hunt plagued Oldfield. Burnt out, he suffered a heart attack. He never returned to the case, and died in 1985.
But what of Humble? Before sending the tape, the hoaxer had also sent three letters purporting to come from the Ripper, two addressed to Oldfield and one to the Daily Mirror newspaper. When West Yorkshire Police decided to review the case in 2005, DNA advances linked Humble to one of the envelopes he had licked. Detectives found him, alcoholic and unemployed, living with his brother on the Ford Estate in Sunderland. The living conditions were described as “squalid”. In 2006, Humble, then 50, received an eight-year prison sentence for perverting the course of justice; he had apparently been inspired by a library book he had borrowed (and never returned) about the Victorian serial killer Jack the Ripper.
Blacklock, who also hails from Sunderland, portrays Humble as a classic unreliable narrator. Sly, yet not entirely unsympathetic, he pesters the ghost of Oldfield from his prison cell in Leeds with a batch of letters that are a compelling mess of bad grammar, rambling reveals and local dialect.
Blacklock has the voice down pat, with the same insidiously familiar tone as Humble’s tape or his original letters: “Thing is George there was a time that summer everyone was listening to my voice I was listening to my voice you couldn’t not listen to my voice it was playing everywhere wasn’t it.” A picture emerges not only of prison life, but also of the lonely, thwarted existence that led to it.
Fleshing the story out further are the numerous official documents interspersed among Humble’s one-way dispatches: police transcripts, housing association letters, graphology reports, newspaper cuttings. Some are taken straight from real-life sources, although not necessarily relating to Humble; others have been written by Blacklock. All of them, though, are orderly, businesslike and serious, unlike Humble’s wayward outpourings. The contrast — a hierarchy of tone, style and content — magnifies Humble’s lonely position on the bottom rung of society’s ladder.
Then there are other more obviously fictional pieces: poems, two stream-of-consciousness monologues from a younger Humble and a lurid horror story titled “Yours Sincerely, Jack the Ripper”, purportedly written by Robert Blake. This, presumably, is a variation on Robert Psycho Bloch’s 1943 story “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”. Blacklock deftly captures the trashy popular mythologising of the original Ripper murders; his yarn tellingly ends with the words “I’m Jack” — a pulp-fiction endorsement for Humble the fantasist.
I’m Jack doesn’t have the intensity of Gordon Burn’s immersive 1984 take on the life of Peter Sutcliffe, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, or of David Peace’s Red Riding quartet, which have the Yorkshire Ripper investigation as their background. Its tone is more mischievous, with a vein of dark, crafty humour — though the overall effect is sombre. Blacklock’s Humble is impossible to like; yet by the end it is almost impossible not to feel sorry for him. - Austin Collings