Tuesday, February 14, 2012

My Crime Beat Column: Whitechapel TV Series Offers A Modern Take On Jack The Ripper And The Kray Brothers

I’m thankful that I have cable television and I’m thankful that my cable TV provider, Comcast, has an “On Demand” service.

If I didn’t have On Demand I probably would miss a good bit of quality television, as I watch TV at odd hours and I don’t like being a slave to TV broadcasting schedules. 

For instance, late one evening a while back I caught On Demand an interesting and compelling detective series on BBC America called Whitechapel.

In a three-part series, Rupert Penry-Jones and Phil Davis, two veteran British TV actors (seen in the above photo with Davis on the left), portray modern London detectives who set out to solve the most famous unsolved murder case in history - Jack the Ripper's serial murders in the late 1880s.

When a series of murders occur in modern-day Whitechapel in the East End of London, the detectives wonder if a copycat killer taken on the persona of Jack the Ripper.

Detective Inspector Joseph Chandler (Penry-Jones) is an ambitious, fast-tracked officer with a friend in a high place on the police force, but a novice at homicide.

Detective Sergeant Mill (Davis) is a crusty and cranky old officer, but a veteran homicide detective.

With the aid of a "Ripperologist" (Steve Pemberton), the detectives investigate the new murders that resample Jack the Ripper's infamous Whitechapel murders in every detail.

According to the London’s Metropolitan Police New Scotland Yard’s web site, the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ has become the most infamous in the annals of murder.

(Above is a photo of the "From Hell" letter). 

“Yet, the amazing fact is that his identity remains unproven today,” the web site tells us. “In the years 1888-1891 the name was regarded with terror by residents of London’s East End, and was known the world over. So Shrouded in myth and mystery is this story that the facts are hard to identify at this time.”

“Over the years the mystery has deepened to the degree that the truth is almost totally obscured. Innumerable press stories, pamphlets, books, plays, films and even musicals have dramatized and distorted the facts to such a degree that the fiction is publicly accepted more than the reality.

According to New Scotland Yard, there are four Jack the Ripper suspects:

Kosminski, a poor Polish Jew resident in Whitechapel;

Montague John Druitt, a 31-year-old barrister and school teacher who committed suicide in December 1888;

Michael Ostrog, a Russian-born multi-pseudonymous thief and confidence trickster, believed to be 55-years-old in 1888, and detained in asylums on several occasions;

Dr Francis J. Tumblety, a 56-year-old American “quack” doctor, who was arrested in November 1888 for offences of gross indecency, and fled the country later the same month, having obtained bail at a very high price.

 “Indeed,” the British police web site continues, “Arguments can be made against all of them being the culprit, and no hard evidence exists against any of them. What is obvious is the fact that the police were at no stage in a position to prove a case against anyone, and it is highly unlikely a positive case will ever be proved.”   

Whitechapel's second three-part series deals with a series of murders that echo the crimes of the notorious Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, who were East End nightclub owners and celebrity gangsters in the "Swinging 1960s."

(The Kray twins appear in the above photo).

In Whitechapel, another set of twins, who claim to be the offspring of Ronnie Kray, are fast becoming the new gang leaders of London's East End.

I thought this was a clever way to reproduce the Kray era and the Kray crimes in the three-part series.

According to the New Scotland Yard web site, “Reginald and Ronald Kray were notorious criminals whose obsession with assaulting others, encouraging each other to greater levels of violence, and extending their personal power and domination culminated in a serious protection racket in London and a number of murders.”

“Their blatant violence and unstable mental condition, particularly of Ronald Kray, led to intimidation of witnesses and the prospect of their escaping justice until they were arrested and convicted by the efforts of a special squad of detectives led by Detective Superintendent Leonard “Nipper” Read.  

Whitechapel is a fast-paced, interesting crime series, with some fine actors.  I watched and enjoyed all six episodes of Whitechapel and I was pleased to read that the producers plan on returning with a third act.

Watching the TV series, I remembered my several visits to Whitechapel and the East End of London many years ago.

I was stationed on a harbor tugboat at the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine base at Holy Loch, Scotland in the mid-1970s. I often took the train south to London, which is one of my favorite cities.

As a student of crime and a future crime writer, I was of course interested in the scene of the crimes of Jack the Ripper and I wanted to walk the same streets as the infamous killer. I was also interested in the Kray twins, who were serving prison terms in those days.

So if you are a student of crime and history or you just enjoy a good TV crime thriller, I suggest you check out Whitechapel. 

Note: The above column originally appeared in The Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine in 2012.

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