TCF: Wicked Beyond Belief

Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper
By Michael Bilton

The crime:

From 1975 to 1980 Peter Sutcliffe, dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper by the press, killed thirteen women and assaulted many others. The police investigation was widely recognized as having been badly mishandled, leading to a formal inquiry into what went wrong. Sutcliffe himself died in prison in 2020 of COVID-19-related complications.

The book:

A lot of true crime books are ephemeral, rushed into print to take advantage of the particular notoriety of a case in the public’s mind. As a general rule, and it’s only a general rule, the ones that look back with the benefit of hindsight tend to be better. Michael Bilton’s Wicked Beyond Belief is a case in point. It’s more concerned with the Yorkshire Ripper investigation, and draws on a lot of first-hand reporting as well as the Byford Report, which was completed in 1981 but not released to the public until 2006. Bilton had seen the report before then, however, and incorporated some of its findings into the first edition of this book, which came out in 2004. Then in 2006 an updated edition was published with a chapter on the capture of John Humble (“Wearside Jack”), the individual who had pretended to be the Ripper and sent hoax letters and tapes to the police while Sutcliffe was active. So while speculation continues about things like just how many murders and assaults Sutcliffe committed, I think this book will probably stand as the most complete account of the case. At over 700 pages it certainly should be.

That said, it is very much directed at one aspect of the case: the investigation. The depth of detail in Bilton’s coverage, and the length of the investigation, make this the mother of all police procedurals. But luckily for readers, the Ripper killings spawned two classic works of true crime, one being this book and the other Gordon Burn’s Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, a tour de force of immersive journalism which tells the story more from Sutcliffe’s point of view. Some of Burn’s conclusions haven’t held up (his book was published in 1984), but it’s an amazing bit of work that’s full of insight.

Bilton’s book forces us to experience, along with the police, what was a chronicle of frustration. Sutcliffe was interviewed by the police as a person of interest nine times before he was finally arrested on a minor charge having to do with driving with stolen plates. And yet in the final year of the investigation he wasn’t even on a list of “high-grade suspects.” The various threads linking Sutcliffe to the murders were never pulled together.

But what also becomes clear here is that the police not only drove hard, but did some great work as well. The tracking of the five-pound note found at one of the crime scenes and the mapping of the dialect and accent of the voice on the hoax tape to a precise neighbourhood being perhaps the most impressive examples. Unfortunately, the (pre-computerized) system for keeping track of all the leads the police were getting soon broke down under the weight of too much information. The task force also ignored some of the most promising avenues while speeding down a number of dead ends (for example: putting too much emphasis on a specific model of car, and believing the hoax letters and tape to be genuine). Finally, they also had a long run of very bad luck. For example, Sutcliffe’s family gave him alibis, perhaps inadvertently. Witnesses made false or misleading identifications. That sort of thing.

Sutcliffe himself is someone I find to be a real curiosity. He was apparently very low-key and calm in his demeanour, with a stultifying and sterile home life, but his crimes were brutal in the extreme. Beating, stabbing, and biting his victims. Trying to decapitate one with a hacksaw and stabbing another in the eye. Stomping and kicking others. Meanwhile, the sexual motive is blurry. The strange leggings he’d fashioned certainly suggest a kink, but the women don’t seem to have been raped. He targeted prostitutes because they were available, not to have sex with them, either before or after his assaults. Near the end the killing seems to have become almost a chore, though his methods were no less savage.

As I’ve said though, Bilton’s focus isn’t on Sutcliffe but on the debacle that was the investigation. That debacle, with its enormous publicity and expense as well as attendant political fallout, combined to make this “the most important case in British criminal history.”

Noted in passing:

Survivors of Sutcliffe’s attacks described a man with a “Jason King” moustache. This forced me into some online sleuthing, as the television crime/spy drama Jason King only aired for a single season (1971-72) and I’d never heard of it before. In the show, the actor Peter Wyngarde plays Jason King, an author who gets mixed up in various thrilling adventures. He had a long, droopy moustache like Sutcliffe’s but no beard. To be honest, I don’t see much of a resemblance, but as a clue it was better worth following up on than many of the other false leads the police hunted down.

Also, a condom is called a “contraceptive sheath” in England. I thought we got the word “rubber” from over there.


Bilton helpfully includes in an appendix transcripts of the two police interviews of Sutcliffe where he confessed to the killings. Or at least to most of the killings. What’s interesting about what he says in the interviews is that despite giving himself up he still manages to be extremely dishonest. Some of this is psychologically understandable, even relatable, especially as it pertains to his sexual motivations. But he also lied about things that he seemingly had no reason to lie about. In his first interview, for example, when asked about the murder of Marguerite Walls he responded “You’ve got a mystery on your hands with that one.” But later he had to admit that he’d killed her as well.

I don’t think he’d forgotten. There’s a tendency among the general public anyway to see jailhouse confessions as being reliable, especially where nothing is to be gained from lying. But Sutcliffe wasn’t just a homicidal psychopath, he was a habitual liar as well. Indeed he pretty much had to be the latter out of necessity. Such people don’t stop lying because they’ve been caught. In some ways, I think they basically forget how to tell the truth.

True Crime Files

16 thoughts on “TCF: Wicked Beyond Belief

  1. I remember watching the series with my Mum, I think she had a soft spot for him, in fairness there wasn’t much eye candy for girls back then. I liked The Persuaders better with Tony Curtis and Roger Moore, at least that was funny.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s