PD Smith

They All Love Jack

03 October 2015 | crime, Detectives, Reviewing, Watching the Detectives | Post a comment

I've spent the last week reading and reviewing Bruce Robinson's remarkable new book on Jack the Ripper, They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper, which has just been longlisted for the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize. It's a leviathan of a book – more than 800 pages long – and on one level Robinson has written a wonderfully scabrous exposé of the debauched lives of the Victorian aristocracy and upper classes.

Men like Henry James Fitzroy, Earl of Euston, whom Robinson describes with typical bluntness as “a classic pile of shit”, and Prince Albert Victor, son of the Prince of Wales, an “effete little useless pederast” but not, as some Ripperologists have suggested, a candidate for Jack the Ripper himself (“nonsense”, growls Robinson, who claims this theory is so ludicrous it had to be an attempt to divert attention from the real perpetrator).

9780007548897Both men were implicated in a scandal involving young boys at a male brothel in Cleveland Street in 1889. The ensuing cover-up resulted in a journalist and the low-class working boys at the club being sent to jail but the upper class perpetrators, the “top nobs”, going free: “the law had to be made a whore to save the royal arse”. For Robinson this is an example of how the Victorian ruling classes closed ranks to protect their own, during both this scandal and that involving Jack the Ripper: “If the Crown was under threat – be it from a nancy prince or a Monster with a Blade – it was a threat to them all”.

Both the Earl of Euston and Prince Albert Victor were Freemasons and this secretive organisation is central to Robinson’s narrative: “Masonry permeates every fibre of this conundrum”. He does not claim that the concealment of Jack the Ripper was a Masonic conspiracy and he makes it clear that he is not hostile to the Craft: “The Ripper, and not I, is the enemy of Freemasonry.” Instead he blames “Her Majesty’s executive”, who were all Masons: “it was a conspiracy of the System”.

Robinson believes that honest policemen like Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline, who exposed the Cleveland Street brothel and worked on the Ripper case, could have easily caught the Ripper if they had been given full access to the evidence. But the System wouldn’t let Abberline (who was not a Mason) do his job.

As well as a wonderfully angry critique of the Victorian Establishment, Robinson's book is also a forensically detailed account of a cover-up of breath-taking audacity, a criminal conspiracy to conceal one of the worst crimes this country has ever seen. Using the letters sent to the police - which unlike many Ripperologists he believes to be genuine - he creates a portrait of Jack the Ripper as the “Masonic Joker” that is genuinely chilling and convincing. After years of painstaking research, Robinson has also uncovered a new prime suspect, the popular songwriter Michael Maybrick. He makes a powerful case for his guilt.

It has to be said though that after so many years, all we have is circumstantial evidence and newspaper reports, the latter usually dismissed by historians as unreliable. Most of the police files have mysteriously vanished. (Aha! exclaims Robinson.)

But his book is a bloody good read. Read it and make your own mind up about what really happened in the dark streets of Whitechapel at the end of the nineteenth century.

My review is in today's Guardian Review.

Rush-Hour review

30 September 2015 | Reviewing, Watching the Detectives | Post a comment

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last few months, but life has been pretty hectic for me. We moved house and then my mother died, which was all rather traumatic, as I guess you can imagine.
Anyway, I've managed to get at least a few book shelves up in my new office (you have to get your priorities right, don't you). Here's the view from my window, although I do now use a slightly more up-to-date word processor than this one...


I'm working hard on Watching the Detectives. For a number of reasons too boring to explain, this book has taken longer than I hoped to research and write. But my publisher, Bloomsbury, is being very understanding and I'm back on the case, tracking down the sleuths. Watch this space, as they say…

In addition to my brief non-fiction reviews which I write for the Guardian, I did one for the TLS recently on Iain Gately's Rush Hour, a fascinating history of commuting. Unfortunately they don't put their reviews online, so here's my version (which may differ slightly from the published one). Enjoy!

Filthy London

02 January 2015 | cities, London, Reviewing | Post a comment

I've just been wallowing in the history of filthy London, courtesy of Lee Jackson's excellent new book, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. It's a wonderful trawl through the history of London's sewers, cemeteries, and street cleaners. Did you know that by the 1890s, London needed some 300,000 horses to keep it moving and that 1,000 tons of dung were deposited each day on the city's streets? No wonder its streets were dirty!

Anyway, here's the first paragraph of my review:

“I have seen the greatest wonder which the world can show to the astonished spirit.” So said the German poet Heinrich Heine in 1827, and the wonder he referred to was London. In the course of the 19th century, London’s population soared from one million to six million. This booming centre of commerce and industry was at “the heart of the greatest empire ever known”, but, as Lee Jackson adds, London “was also infamously filthy”. The Chinese ambassador turned his nose up at this most dynamic city, complaining it was “too dirty”. He had a point, for this was a place whose infrastructure had scarcely changed in centuries. Cesspools were overflowing, the cemeteries were bursting with stinking corpses, the streets were coated with noxious black mud, rotting rubbish clogged its alleys, and its citizens lived in overcrowded, decrepit buildings, breathing air that was heavily polluted with soot and sulphurous fumes. This was the filthy reality of London for most of its inhabitants.

You can read the rest of my review over on the Guardian's website. Or you could even buy the paper tomorrow.

By the way: Happy New Year!

The Plutonium Collector

29 December 2014 | Atomic Age, atomic bomb, Doomsday Men, Los Alamos, nuclear weapons, plutonium, Sanford Simons | One comment

During the holidays I noticed that Sanford Lawrence Simons had died of cancer aged 92 in Littleton, Colorado. In 1950 he became known to the press as the “plutonium collector” after he was arrested by the FBI for stealing a sample of the deadly new radioactive element from Los Alamos. Simons had been part of the Manhattan Project during the war. But in 1946, he had removed a glass vial from the weapons laboratory. It contained a small amount of the element that had been at the heart of the Nagasaki atomic bomb.

In 1950, a few months after Leo Szilard had explained to the American people on national radio how a nuclear doomsday device could be created, FBI officers raided Simons’ home on the outskirts of Denver and, after a brief search, discovered the stolen plutonium hidden beneath the house. In the drawer of a dresser, the FBI men also found several pieces of uranium.

That day the 28-year-old research scientist was led away in handcuffs. Afterwards his daughter remembers him joking about the arrest. But at the time it was no laughing matter. I described what happened and the media reaction to it in my book Doomsday Men.

DM US cover

Simons, who had trained as a metallurgical engineer, readily admitted taking the radioactive material, but he claimed it was just a “souvenir” of his time at Los Alamos, which he left in July 1946. Flanked by two impassive FBI men wearing Humphrey Bogart fedoras, Simons talked freely with journalists after he’d been committed for trial. Unshaven and handcuffed, though still clutching his pipe, Simons seemed remarkably unfazed by his predicament. Under the Atomic Energy Act he faced a possible maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Just a few weeks earlier, the FBI had arrested Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in New York on suspicion of atomic espionage. They were both convicted the following year and, despite international pleas for clemency including from Einstein, the couple were subsequently executed in the electric chair.

“Why did I take it?”, said Simons sheepishly, in answer to reporters’ questions. “Well, it seems pretty silly now, but I’ve always collected mineral samples. I realized almost instantly that I didn’t want it, but it was like having a bull by the tail. I couldn’t let go!”

One of the press men asked how he managed to smuggle the plutonium out of the top-secret military research laboratory.

Simons grinned: “I just walked out with it.”

He explained that the plutonium sample had been lying around on his desk for some time. No one had asked for it back and eventually he simply couldn’t resist it.

“There was no real check-up on what was taken out of the place at that time,” he added with a shrug.

You wouldn’t have guessed it from what Simons said, but in the 1940s fissile elements such as plutonium were more precious than gold to the atomic bomb project. They were the result of a vast expenditure of money and effort. Whole cities of workers laboured to produce these lethal elements in vast industrial complexes specially built for the Manhattan Project. Each gram was the product of thousands of man hours. It was not unusual to see scientists down on their hands and knees, sweeping the floor with Geiger counters, hunting for the smallest stray piece of metal that might have been dropped.

Atomic Age Opens, 1945

Sometimes the Geiger counter would crackle furiously as it passed over a tiny orange or black speck on someone’s lab coat, revealing the tell-tale signs of dangerous radioactivity. Even the smallest scrap of fissionable matter was extremely valuable and as a result lab coats were treated routinely with chemicals to reclaim these elements. The journalists pressed the FBI agents who arrested Simons as to how much the plutonium in the vial was worth. Eventually one said he’d heard figures ranging from $500 to $200,000.

Sanford Simons hid the stolen plutonium under his house. He had good reason to. Plutonium has been called the most dangerous element on earth. With three small children, Simons wanted it out of reach. The glass vial and its deadly contents remained in its hiding place for four years. The FBI only became aware of it after they were tipped off. Simons had let slip in conversation with a friend that he had some plutonium. Perhaps his sense of guilt led Simons to make an unwise comment. Or maybe, just once, this modest scientist was tempted into an idle boast. But in the year that Senator Joe McCarthy was stoking fears about a Communist fifth column infiltrating American society, to admit that you had a key ingredient for an atomic bomb stashed in your home was simply asking for trouble.

Wylie, Smuggled Atom Bomb, 1951 edn

Outside the courtroom, a reporter put it to Agent Russell Kramer that taking plutonium as a “souvenir” was a rather corny excuse. The FBI man nodded and said, without a trace of humour, “He’s a pretty corny guy.”

During his trial, the defence pointed out that Simons had never been in trouble with the police. More importantly, he was not a “Red” and had no “Communist connections.” The defence attorney based his case on the popular image of the scientist. He argued, somewhat unconvincingly, that scientists are “all darned fools” when it came to experiments. He claimed that scientific curiosity alone had prompted Simons to take the plutonium and uranium in 1946. It was a case of the irresistible allure of forbidden knowledge, your Honour, and, as everyone knew, no scientist worth his slide-rule could resist that.

But Judge Lee Knous was not particularly impressed by this defence. For taking a pinch of plutonium, the disgraced scientist was sentenced to 18 months in a Federal prison.

When I was writing Doomsday Men, the story of the Plutonium Collector and the media’s interest in it struck me as a wonderful example of the public fascination with both scientists and the new atomic forces which they had unleashed. For some reason, since writing the book I’ve often thought about Simons and his dangerous desire for the new elements. At the time I didn’t explore what happened to him after his imprisonment. Fortunately, it turns out that his brief spell behind bars didn’t blight his career. According to his obituary, Simons became an inventor, running his own biomedical instruments company in Colorado. In that same piece, journalist Ann Imse says he was “known for his intelligence, impish personality, pet ferret and, in his later years, terrifyingly wild driving on mountain roads.”

But I bet he never forgot the time when he first picked up that valuable though deadly sample of plutonium and realised that he could simply pocket it and walk out of the top-secret Los Alamos laboratory. It’s not surprising that Simons wasn’t the only Los Alamos scientist who longed to own a souvenir of the Manhattan Project. Otto Frisch, whose calculations of critical mass were crucial in the early stages of the atomic bomb project, shared Simons’ dangerous fascination with the new atomic elements. When the silvery blocks of highly fissionable uranium-235 were first delivered to Los Alamos in April 1945, Frisch felt an overwhelming “urge to take one”. They were the first samples ever made of uranium-235 metal, the element that would blast the heart out of Hiroshima. Strangely, Frisch thought the heavy metal would make a nice paperweight.

I’m glad things went well for Simons, after his brush with the FBI in 1950. In my book I explored how the world became obsessed with the dreams and nightmares of the atomic age, terrified by mad scientists and filled with hope by saintly ones, such as Einstein. Despite his one brief moment of atomic madness, Sanford Simons seems to have been a reassuringly grounded sort of guy. An everyday kind of scientist. And in the end I guess that’s the best kind there is.

Science Fiction Quarterly, #1 vol 2 Nov 1952, Moskowitz, atom graphic unsharp


If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, which is based on my book Doomsday Men, then you might like to consider reading the whole book.

You can buy absurdly cheap copies of it now on Amazon, or if you really want to support me and my writing you might like to consider buying the e-book. You can buy it direct from Penguin (ePub) or from Amazon in the UK (Kindle), or Barnes & Noble (Nook) in the US. Thanks for reading!

Notebook on Cities and Culture

15 April 2014 | cities, City, Detectives, Watching the Detectives | Post a comment

On a very wet day at the end of January, Colin Marshall interviewed me in a Winchester bar for his excellent series of podcasts, Notebook on Cities and Culture. We talked for about an hour about our experiences of cities from Tokyo to Munich, about the differences between cities, about how they are built and how we experience them, about the city of non-places and the city of crime, and many other subjects.

You can download the podcast now on Colin's website.