Keywords: True crime, social history

Title: Jack Of Jumps

Author: David Seabrook

Publisher: Granta

ISBN: 1862077703

Reviewed by: James Marriott

'Was she putting bread in her mouth? What else was she putting in her mouth?'

Between 1959 and 1965 eight prostitutes were murdered in West London by a serial killer. The case remains unsolved, although predictably enough rumours circulated about the true identity of the killer, drawing on tantalising if tenuous connections to the Krays, Freddie Mills and the Profumo scandal. This is popular territory, the world Jake Arnott, Anthony Frewin (to whom the book is dedicated) and even Stewart Home have mined for fictions peddling a watered-down blend of Iain Sinclair's fevered psychogeography and James Ellroy's fiercely clipped reimaginings of California history. Given that Seabrook's last book, All the Devils are Here, reads like Sinclair as Margate man, he seems to be trying to use the murders as a springboard for social history, lured by these shadowy figures lurking on the sidelines. He certainly doesn't have much sympathy for the victims themselves, sliding into an unpleasantly gloating tone when describing their appearances and habits - 'hers is a face … only a bugger could love'; 'if Tailford is Nora Batty's understudy, Lockwood is Freddie Starr in drag' - and his treatment of the prostitutes, abused, suicidal and abandoned, leaves too much of a nasty taste to be justified as a mirror of contemporary mores (quotes from acquaintances run along the lines of 'It was about this time I realised what a slut she was'), although ironically his gleeful besmirching of their characters is one of the few times the writing really comes alive.

Elsewhere the focus is either too close or too distant: the barrage of forensic detail leaves the reader floundering in facts, names, dates and places finally indistinguishable from each other, reducible to a core triumvirate of punter, ponce and prostitute. Occasionally Seabrook pulls back to look at the broader social context - Notting Hill race riots, Rachman's notorious slum landlordism, the death of Freddie Mills - but in contrast to, for instance, Gordon Burn's astonishing Happy Like Murderers (still the high-water mark in true-crime journalism), a credible sense of the world in which the victims lived never really materialises. He also gives us a glimpse of the writer at work, travelling to the various discovery sites, meeting raconteurs and, bizarrely, a Welsh medium, but never questions his own interest in the case or motivation in studying it, so that finally we are left with a sense of rather pointless endeavour, a book that fails to deliver on the press release's promise of 'unearth[ing] the truth' and provides instead a frustrating collection of false starts and disgusted appraisals of dead-end lives.

Review © James Marriott. Site © London Book Review 2006. Published July 12 2006