PW: Why did you write Portrait of a Killer?
Patricia Cornwell: I was in London and was given an opportunity to tour Scotland Yard. I spent some time with the top investigator in England, John Grieve. We started talking about the Ripper cases, and I asked, "Has anybody ever tried to use modern investigative techniques or forensic science in these cases?" He said, "No." So I thought, "It would be interesting to see what I can find out." I was thinking of using it in a Scarpetta novel, but my hair began to stand on end as I began to look into Walter Sickert, who was the one suspect that John Grieve said he had always "wondered" about.
PW: Yours seems to be an almost moral obsession with this case.
PC: It is. I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to write nonfiction, and I knew I wasn't going to get paid very much for it and it was going to cost me a lot of money. But when I began to feel very strongly that this artist very well may have been this serial murderer, I had to continue. It is a matter of justice. I believe I had a moral obligation to reveal the identity of this serial killer, and I also believe it's time to put an end to what has become a puzzle and a game and an incredible preoccupation for people, which I think is rather abhorrent. Jack the Ripper has almost a fan club. These Ripperologists, and the people that go on Ripper walks—I don't think that's right, knowing the reality of these murders and of any murder.
PW: Have you gotten feedback from Ripperologists?
PC: The word I get from England is that the Ripperologists are "laying in wait for me," that they are "furious" with me. But this is simply a criminal investigation, and I recruited and hired the very best people in the business to help me with this, knowing that, at any step along the way, they might give me news that I didn't want to hear. Because even at the end of the day, $6 million later, if something were discovered that definitively ruled Sickert out, I would have to live with that. But that has not happened. In fact, the case only continues to get stronger.
PW: Was the money and the time worth it?
PC: Absolutely. And not just because Jack the Ripper's identity is revealed. It's worth it if it helps put a stop to the celebration of this man and his crimes. And a greater good, which applies to the living, is that this is an opportunity to push forensic science to limits that it hasn't been pushed to before—for example, using DNA on a 114-year-old case and actually coming up with a mitochondrial sequence. In addition, it's a great showcase for forensic science and forensic medicine. One of my biggest goals in life is to bring the attention to those fields that they deserve, to do so realistically and to try to encourage the public to go to their legislators and others and to say, "We need good laboratories." We're in a forensic crisis in this country right now. We are so short of scientists that we can't manage the caseloads. I just went to a morgue the other day that was in a trailer, in Louisiana, where they have a terrible serial murderer on the loose.
PW: In your acknowledgments, you give a special thanks to Phyllis Grann.
PC: She was a consultant in this. She came down to Hilton Head where I was working on the book, and she helped with the photographs and read the manuscript. I consider Phyllis a friend and mentor, and will continue to do so.
PW: You became interested in this case only in May 2001. You must have been up around the clock working on the investigation and the book.
PC: I was. I made 20 trips to England and France. Seven days a week, about 12 hours a day, it's all I did. I'm an avid tennis player, and I did not touch a tennis racket for eight months. That may sound like a small thing, but it was a huge deal for me. I literally would sit in bed at night reading these century-old books, because virtually everything I used was primary materials, or very old books. That's all I did.