Audiobook Review: Portrait of a Killer – Patricia Cornwell

Portrait of a Killer by Patricia Cornwell

Title: Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed
Author: Patricia Cornwell
Narrator: Lorelei King
Publication date: 1 May 2012
Publisher: AudioGO
ISBN: 9781445848297
Length: 12 hours 44 minutes
Genre: True Crime / Non-fiction
Age group: Adult
Add it: Goodreads
Buy it: AudioGO


Between August and November 1888 at least seven women were murdered in Whitechapel. The gruesome nature of their deaths caused panic and fear for months in the east end, and gave rise to the sobriquet which was to become shorthand for a serial killer – Jack the Ripper.

For over a hundred years the identity of the murders have remained among one of the world’s greatest unsolved crimes, and a wealth of theories have been posited which have pointed the finger at royalty, a barber, a doctor, a woman and an artist. Using her formidable range of forensic and technical skills, Patricia Cornwell has applied the rigorous discipline of twenty-first-century police investigation to the extant material, and here presents the hard evidence that the perpetrator of the Whitechapel murders was the world-famous artist, Walter Sickert.

By using techniques unknown in the late Victorian era, Patricia Cornwell has exposed Sickert as the author of the infamous Ripper letters to the Metropolitan Police. Her detailed analysis of his paintings shows how his art continually depicted his horrific mutilation of his victims, and her examination of this man’s birth defects, the consequent genital surgical interventions and their effects on his upbringing present a casebook example of how a psychopathic killer is created.

With her knowledge of criminal investigation and her consummate skills as a best-selling writer, Patricia Cornwell has produced a book which is as compelling as it is authentic and pays due respect to the people whose early deaths spawned one of the twentieth century’s least attractive entertainment industries – those of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddows, Mary Kelly and others.

My thoughts

Patricia Cornwell’s Portrait of a Killer was actually the very first audiobook I’ve ever listened to and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. On top of that, it was also the very first book I’ve read (well, listened to) from the true crime genre. I’m a huge fan of crime fiction but true crime is something I’ve never tried before and I’m glad I did now.

The thing I liked the most about this particular edition is narration. For me, a good narrator is crucial. Every time I decided to give audiobooks a try in the past I was always put off by the reader’s voice, accent, the speed of narration, or the lack of it and had to stop listening to them only after a few chapters. In this case, however, I think Lorelei King was a brilliant choice for Cornwell’s story and made the book very easy to listen to.

As for the story itself, I’m still in two minds about what to think of it. On the one hand, I loved the author’s description of psychopaths in general. Cornwell dedicates almost an entire chapter to this topic and it was by far my favourite. She gives us a detailed image of psychopaths’ personalities (including the fact that even people who are closest to them may not realize they are monsters, something I found rather creepy), discusses what makes a psychopath and whether it’s a genetic trait or not. She also gives us a nice, overall view of Victorian England, how women were treated at that time, what living conditions were like – paying particular attention to the urban poor and slum areas – and so on. We also hear quite a lot about the nineteenth century police force and how incompetent they were in every way, which again I really enjoyed.

On the other hand, it wasn’t really what I expected the book to be. When I first came across this novel, I thought it would tell us some details about the Ripper murders, the victims, as well as some of the possible suspects and their personalities. All of which Cornwell does deal with in her book, but not in the way I’d expected. The entire book focuses on a nineteenth century English painter – Walter Sickert – whom the author believes to be the famous Jack the Ripper. Cornwell is desperately trying to prove this by analysing Sickert’s paintings and family history but I’m still not quite sure I agree with her. To believe your solution is the only possible key to the mystery and rejecting every other theory when so little is known about these murders is something I wasn’t really keen on while I was listening to her book. Also, going into such details about Sickert’s personal life and examining his life from early childhood might give us a better understanding of the murderer and his motives – if indeed Sickert was Jack the Ripper, which, as I said, I’m still not convinced of – but I found these parts very long and definitely less interesting than some other parts of the story.

Despite all these, however, I did enjoy the book. She didn’t manage to convince me that her theory is the right one but I do think the book can be enjoyed whether you accept her argument or not and it still gives you an idea of what the killer and this whole era might have been like.

3 star rating

10 Responses to “Audiobook Review: Portrait of a Killer – Patricia Cornwell”

  1. True Crime is definitely not my thing but I imagine that her studies of the era, what the police procedurals were, how women were treated and the characeteristics of killers like this in general would be fascinating
    Melissa’s Eclectic Bookshelf recently posted..Cover Reveal: Jenny’s Blue Velvet by Angela CarlieMy Profile

    • Vicky says:

      I had no idea if it would be my thing or not but I’m glad I gave it a try. :) But I guess I prefer more fast-paced stories so I should probably stick to fiction in the future…

  2. I read this book awhile ago and really enjoyed it. But like you, I wasn’t convinced by her theory really. But it was very intriguing!
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  3. Very thorough review. I’ve read little true crime but maybe I should read more of it. I’ve had bad experiences with Lorelei King so I definitely won’t give this one a try on audio though I’d consider in paper format.
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  4. I used to love audiobooks. I listened to them all the time. I don’t know why I stopped but I really want to get into them again. I’m following your blog and I was wondering if you could do this tag that I created called Blogging Things I Suck At. You can find out all the details and more at the post on my blog here. I really hope you can do it.
    Laura @ Music Plus Books
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  5. I quite enjoyed Cornwell’s books when I was reading them in high school. But that’s over 6 years ago so maybe I should reread them now. I am more critical now, blog helped me on that path a lot.
    Ula @ Blog of Erised recently posted..You’ve got mail!/Showcase Sunday/Stacking the Shelves/Owl PostMy Profile

  6. For starters, I’m really happy you enjoyed your first audiobook experience. TRUST ME — a decent narrator makes all the difference in the world!

    I’ve always held a sick fascination with serial killers (Jack the Ripper, in particular) so this book has been on my TBR list for quite some time. I find the theory fascinating (I’ve seen several TV programs on it), although, like you, I’m not sure I completely buy into it. And if you like Cornwell’s writing style and the crime genre, I suggest trying her Kay Scarpetta series. It’s pretty realistic! I have several of the audio versions and the reader is wonderful!

    • Vicky says:

      So did I, especially with Jack the Ripper. It definitely gives you a bit of background knowledge of this era and what was happening at the time so it is an interesting read, but yes, I’m not entirely sure I believe this theory to be the right one.

      I actually do have the first two (or three?) Scarpetta novels on my bookshelf, waiting to be read, so I’ll give them a try as soon as I can.

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