Everybody Counts - review of The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Review by: Profile Editorial Team, 04/11/2019

Michael Connelly’s fictional detective, Harry Bosch, has a simple mantra: Everybody counts or nobody counts. This is his engine: it drives him to uncover the truth surrounding Hollywood’s murder victims. Bosch always wants to know the real person behind the corpse, and doesn’t differentiate between a murdered prostitute and a murdered millionaire. His zeal is fuelled by the murder of his own mother, herself a Hollywood prostitute.

‘The Five’ tells the life stories of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper. This might be the only book about the Ripper which doesn’t shout ‘look how clever I am’ – because it makes no attempt to solve the riddle of the Ripper’s identity. Indeed, the murderer himself takes very much a back seat to his five victims, which is as it should be: why celebrate a man whose only known ‘achievement’ was the taking of life in a cowardly and brutal fashion? Nevertheless, Hallie Rubenhold’s detective skills are evident in the way that she has extracted every milligram of meaning from official records and contemporary accounts to enable each of these five women to come to life on the page. They have been silent for the past 130 years but their stories deserve to be heard, and here they have been told with great care and compassion.

Hallie Rubenhold’s detective skills are evident in the way that she has extracted every milligram of meaning from official records and contemporary accounts to enable each of these five women to come to life on the page

Rubenhold tells us, first, the stories of the parents of these women – where they came from, how they met, the relatable ‘boy meets girl’ tale which precedes every living human.  Then she follows the five through childhood and into adult life. This makes the stories all the more heartbreaking: nobody is born with a destiny for abject poverty. It’s easy to visualise each of these lives following a more hopeful trajectory, given the smallest of breaks. However, by the time these five women meet their end the dirty work has already been done - by a combination of poor luck, the judgmentalism of Victorian society, alcohol abuse and the grim living standards of the 1880s. It seems remarkable that vast numbers of people lived in such extreme poverty in the capital city of the great British empire as recently as 130 years ago – these women were not exceptional in their horrific life journeys.

why celebrate a man whose only known ‘achievement’ was the taking of life in a cowardly and brutal fashion?

At a time when we are sometimes enjoined by politicians to resurrect ‘Victorian values’ it is helpful to be reminded just how mean-spirited, unequal and downright spiteful Victorian society could be. It says a lot that the true horror in these life stories isn’t the throat-slashing murder but the descent into a living hell which each of these women experienced while they were still alive. They all knew the daily grind of trying to keep body and soul together in a society where any departure from strict social norms could brand a woman – quite unfairly – as a prostitute. Misogyny and sexual double standards were very much the order of the day.

Their names were Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane. They came from loving families. They had families and lives of their own, and they were robbed of a decent life path long before they met their murderer. Take a quiet moment and think of them. Harry Bosch would understand : everybody counts.

 

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Posted in: non-fiction