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“Millions of people were directly affected by the Ripper manhunt. It seems that nearly everyone in the north has a story about that time: their fathers being pulled over by the police, walking past murder sites on the way to school.” David Peace, The Guardian, 10 May 2008.

“It’s then I think on’t Ripper
an what e did an why,
an ow mi mates ate women,
an ow Pete med em die”

Blake Morrison, The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper.

I have recently finished reading 1977 by David Peace and I’m about half way through 1980.  These are part of a four book series (1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983) fictionalising the Yorkshire Ripper murders and are often referred to as the Red Riding novels.

Peter Sutcliffe was eventually found guilty of the murder of thirteen women and the attempted murder of seven others between 1975 and 1980, but he is an elusive background presence in the books I’ve read so far, as the focus is on a wider web of police corruption and organised crime.  In 1977 the story was told through two characters – a police detective and a journalist, both sexually involved with two of the Ripper’s victims. In 1980 the main protagonist is Peter Hunter, an apparently honest Manchester detective, instructed by the Home Office to investigate the West Yorkshire Police Ripper Squad’s incompetent handling of the case.

Peace grew up in Yorkshire at the time it was being terrorised by the so-called Yorkshire Ripper and has said that he became obsessed with the crimes, but wrote the Red Riding novels two decades later while living in Japan.  Red Riding is therefore a Yorkshire conjured from strong emotional memories and as such has an otherworldly, almost nightmarish feel to it, although Peace must also have undertaken an impressive amount of research to accurately depict the investigation of the crimes themselves.  The language used in 1980 conjures up a bygone world where sexism and racism were culturally mainstream and it is quite disconcerting to see words such as ‘nig-nog’ in print.  However, such touches are essential to authentically capture the era. (I have a postcard sent to me by a relative in the mid-1970s which casually includes the word ‘nig-nog’ and remember such expressions being commonplace).

These novels are not straightforward crime fiction; Peace sometimes experiments with a more poetic form of prose which includes repetition of phrases, dreams and interior ‘stream of consciousness’ monologues.  This adds to the sense that the characters are mentally unravelling, whilst battling with their own demons and the destructive effects of being party to such sordid and brutalising events. Peace has said that to water down such crimes in literature is to palliate their impact on the victims and wider culture:

“Crime is brutal, harrowing and devastating for everyone involved, and crime fiction should be every bit as brutal, harrowing and devastating as the violence of the reality it seeks to document. Anything less at best sanitises crime and its effects, at worst trivialises it. Anything more exploits other people’s misery as purely vicarious entertainment.” David Peace, Crime Time.

The novels 1977 and 1980 are anything but diluted; they are riven with pain.

Red Riding references the East and West Riding of Yorkshire and hints at the fairytale Little Red Riding Hood, a story in which women are beguiled by a murderous wolf.  Red symbolises danger and Peace recreates a Yorkshire awash with the blood of women, slaughtered at the hands of a mythologised killer.

It is this myth of a ‘Ripper’; someone who is so unlike other men that the police would instantly recognise him, that prevented Peter Sutcliffe being caught, despite being interviewed by West Yorkshire police on several occasions.  The attitude of the police towards the victims also hampered the case, by erroneously categorising the crimes as prostitute killings, while failing to see that they were motivated by hatred of women – all women.

“He has made it clear that he hates prostitutes.  Many people do. […] But the Ripper is now killing innocent girls.”
Statement by Detective Jim Hobson, West Yorkshire Police, 1979.

“No one mourns a whore, except her kids, her husband, her mates and the bloody coppers who have to look at her dead fucking body in the snow.”  Detective Chief Superintendent Maurice Jobson, 1980.

Racism, misogyny, corruption, violence – Peace manages to weave together all of these elements in a psychologically gripping crime drama, while presenting us with a jaw dropping evocation of a Yorkshire steeped in darkness.  An ordinary bleak world at war with itself.

“The ordinary street in the ordinary suburb where a man took a hammer and a knife to another man’s daughter… This ordinary world  – This whole empty, forgotten, ordinary world at war.” Peter Hunter, 1980.

If you liked David Peace’s Red Riding novels, you may also like to read:

The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper, Blake Morrison, 1988. (One of my favourite poems, written in Yorkshire dialect).

Misogynies, by Joan Smith, 1989. (This contains an essay on the Yorkshire Ripper case which highlights many of the problems with the police investigation).