I am not a huge fan of fantasy murder mysteries, unless the murder works alongside/into a larger plot. I feel that this is because much of the focus of more modern mysteries is on the procedure and police-work, which would not work well with medieval notions of justice. Part of the true brilliance of Game of Thrones is in how a certain Stark follows a path very similar to the modern police/rational detective stories but is violently derailed by the notions of medieval justice and a very medieval crime; it is Mr Martins way of driving home, very effectively, that modern notions of justice, fairness, and law do not apply in his world.
Meanwhile it is hard to find a killer that holds up well to the scale of fantasy, or the magic. What are mere criminals compared to the likes of Smaug, Elric, The Bloody Nine, Conan, or Arya Stark? Only a few killers seem worthy of a fantasy stage, which usually deals with a grander scale and more spectacular action scenes.
One real world killer who fits the bill is Jack the Ripper who holds still inspires a macabre fascination, even over a hundred twenty years after his crimes. Just today I was shown an article about how they finally, potentially, sort of, may have “solved” the mystery with DNA evidence (link). The Ripper murders make for very compelling modern fantasy fare, and the Ripper himself would make an excellent villain in a fantasy novel with little allowance. Here are a few reasons why:
1) The Ripper is Bloody: Modern fantasy tends to be fairly violent, and the Ripper murders fit right in with this trend. Grisly evisceration, performed with surgical precision in some cases, was the hallmark of the Ripper. The Ripper was, above all, brutal, which makes for a good villain in any genre.
2) The Ripper preyed on Prostitutes: Modern fantasy, at times, seems obsessed with prostitutes, particularly those who work the streets and who lead troubled lives. As a villain you could do far worse a person who preys upon unfortunate women who are forced to sell themselves to survive. The connection between poverty and street prostitution is pretty clear, and a villain who preys on the poor hits home in days of growing inequality. Score that for the Ripper as a good villain.
- Interestingly enough the cartoon that I included at the beginning of this post comes from a period piece trying how Jack the Ripper was symbolic of the “social neglect” problems surrounding places like Whitechapel. Some feel the Ripper murders helped galvanize support for early social justice movements. They certainly shone a light on the seedy underbelly of they city.
3) The Supernatural Element: The Ripper was never caught, and over time, his abilities and prowess became exaggerated to the point that supernatural traits and great skill were attributed to the killer. Partly this is because forensics at the time were still iffy — many of the coroners and investigators could not agree on the man’s surgical skills or which victims were his. The list of suspects was also enormous, all with varied skills and reason. Eventually all of this got packed in and blended into a legendary character who grew larger than life. A legendary murderer makes for an excellent fantasy villain, one that may require epic means to track down and confront.
4) The Taunting Letters: A letter, with part of a Kidney was sent to the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. The letter is often assumed to be a hoax in modern times, but became a canonical part of the Ripper’s character. Taunting the police is a frequent trope in serial killer stories, and certainly would not go amiss in in a fantasy novel. However, it would be much better to add an interesting twist, such as a duel of wits a la Moriarty, or perhaps something magical like a necromantic Ripper animating his victims and sending them to carry the letters to the watch (I may do this for my next Shadow Wolf saga).
5) The Missing Organs: Several of the Ripper’s victims were missing organs. At the time this fact led to both scientific theories, and occult theories. The occult view lends itself well to Fantasy. What if the Ripper is a powerful sorcerer out harvesting ingredients for a particularly nasty spell?
6) Politics: Several of the Ripper theories have taken the view that the murderer was never caught because of his political connections. Some even point to a Royal connection. This is perfect fodder for a Fantasy villain, of course. Imagine, the Queen’s son, a Necromancer, stalking the downtrodden, with royal agents covering his tracks to prevent embarrassment…
The Ripper character fits so well as a modern fantasy villain that I am surprised that he is not mined for inspiration for more often. Of course it may also be that mainstream fantasy is currently dominated by books where the hero is essentially a Jack the Ripper type, a cloaked figure with strange powers who kills with impunity from the shadows.