In 1995, in Tokyo, I began to write the Red Riding Quartet— Nineteen Seventy-four, Nineteen Seventy-seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty-three—four novels about the time and the place I grew up in; the North of England in the 1970s and early-80s. This was a time and place haunted by one figure, one man—The Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe.
Perhaps novels and their fictions are, perversely, the more “honest” way to try to understand and write about the past.
Between October 1975 and his arrest in January 1981, Peter Sutcliffe killed at least 13 women and attacked 10 others. Anyone who lived in the North of England during this time will have memories of the Yorkshire Ripper and the police investigation. These are some of mine:
I remember the first time I saw the two words Yorkshire Ripper on the front page of a newspaper when I was ten years old. I remember the posters of the faces of the victims. I remember my sister’s prayers on a night, Please God, don’t let the Ripper kill my mummy; ten times, out loud, every night. I remember the policeman on the TV who said the Ripper was Somebody’s husband, somebody’s son. I remember the taunts in the playground, Your dad is the Ripper! No, your dad is the Ripper. I remember reading Sherlock Holmes and wanting to be Sherlock Holmes; wanting to be Sherlock Holmes so I could catch the Ripper. I remember the petitions and the protests by women to Reclaim the Night from the Ripper. I remember that “Ripper Tape”, that Geordie voice, and then that song, Thank You for Being a Friend. I remember the Police hut they set-up in Dewsbury Bus Station so that people could listen to that tape to try to identify that voice. I remember a woman on the 279 bus suddenly screaming, Why can’t they catch that bastard! I remember Leeds United fans taunting the police with the chants, 13 – nil and You’ll never catch the Ripper. I remember that morning when my dad woke me up with the words, They’ve caught him. Later that same morning, on the way to school, I remember watching the Yorkshire TV presenter Marilyn Webb filming her report in a Dewsbury car park because the Ripper was being held in Dewsbury Police Station and would be appearing later at Dewsbury Crown Court. Then that evening, on the way home from school, I remember the mob that had gathered outside the Crown Court with nooses and signs demanding, Hang the Ripper! I remember the fear. I remember the anger. I remember the sadness. I remember wishing I lived somewhere else, anywhere else.
These were just some of my memories of that time and that place as I researched and wrote the Red Riding Quartet. And among all these memories, there was always one question, always the same question; why?
Why did these crimes happen to these people in that time and that place? Why was it the Yorkshire Ripper and not, for example, the Scottish Ripper?
Was there something in that society—in its politics and its economy, its policing and its education, its landscape and its language—something that allowed or caused these crimes to happen in that particular place at that particular time?
Were we, the people of West Yorkshire in the 1970s, somehow culpable in these crimes? Or were we just “unlucky”?
And among these questions, I also asked myself one; whether novels were the best place to seek answers? Might it not have been “better,” or at least more “honest,” to have written a non-fiction book about that time and that place, those crimes and their victims? And these are questions I have kept asking of the books that have followed Red Riding, especially with Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City, the first two novels in my Tokyo Trilogy, and which again use actual, real-life crimes—the hunt for the Tokyo serial killer Kodaira Yoshio, the investigation into the Teigin Bank Massacre—to tell the story of another time and place: post-war, Occupied Tokyo.
But perhaps novels and their fictions are, perversely, the more “honest” way to try to understand and write about the past. For even an eye-witness account of an event, a contemporary piece of journalism for example, no matter what its intentions, can only ever be the subjective work of one individual; one individual who will choose to interview this person and not that one, who will choose to use one word and not another. However, a novel will always, already be a work of fiction and thus can never claim to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The most dangerous books, for me, are always the ones that boast of being the true story, whose authors claim to know the truth.
The inherent dishonesty of the novel, on-the-other-hand, its capacity to make us doubt, to make us question and to think for ourselves, is perhaps its greatest quality. And if we are to learn anything from crimes as brutal and as harrowing as those of Peter Sutcliffe, or of Kodaira Yoshio, then we must ask questions—
We must ask why?
Footnote: In May 1981, Peter Sutcliffe was sentenced to life imprisonment. The judge recommended Sutcliffe serve a minimum term of 30 years before any possibility of parole be considered. At the time of writing, lawyers for Sutcliffe have petitioned the Home Office to see if there will be any possibility of a parole hearing next year, by which time Sutcliffe will have served the minimum 30 years of his life sentence. It is thought to be extremely unlikely that Sutcliffe will be granted a parole hearing, or ever released from prison.
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David Peace is most recently the author of Occupied City. His other books include the Red Riding Quartet, GB84, The Damned Utd, and Tokyo Year Zero. He was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of 2003, and has received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the German Crime Fiction Award, and France’s Grand Prix du Roman Noir for Best Foreign Novel. The film adaptation of Red Riding was just released in the US by IFC Films.