Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
William S. Burroughs
These two books represent the first two instalments of the authors’ ongoing Devil’s Histories, subjective explorations of the darker side of history that are scheduled to cover Vlad the Impaler and Church of Satan founder, Anton LaVey.
Both God’s Assassins and Saucy Jack examine the role that the past has played in shaping the present, combining historical research with an understanding of modern culture to create an engaging framework of cause and effect, very much in the manner employed by broadcaster and journalist James Burke in his acclaimed Connections book and television series.
God’s Assassins, the opening book in the series, traces the roots of what is perceived today as ‘terrorism’ to their origins in the medieval era. However, despite the weighty subject matter, this is no arid slog through the dusty corridors of academic history, as the authors combine effectively realised first person ‘faction’ with reportage of the era to produce an engaging document of the past. This is interspersed with explanations of how events dating from the Christian Crusades, and before, have resonated across the centuries.
Through identifying the genesis of the modern terrorist mindset as originating amid the legendary Hashishim cult (from which we get the term ‘assassin’), Baddeley and Woods not only throw light on the current climate of terror, but also identify the rationale that lies behind the action of many contemporary fundamentalist extremists. The book also effectively explores the modern phenomenon of political assassination, again tracing its source back almost one thousand years.
This is history viewed through the lens of popular culture, and in recounting its sequence of events God’s Assassins touches upon such varied and significant lodestones as the use of drugs to create fanatics, the concept of brainwashing and sleeper agents, and the manner in which William Burroughs evoked the spirit of the Hashishani to create a fictional figure of terror, thus unwittingly echoing the creative fictions that would later be employed by the West to wrest basic freedoms away from their citizenry.
Saucy Jack deals with an entirely different kind of bogeyman. Again evoking a strong sense of its core era – this time, the squalid backstreets of Victorian London – the authors follow the creation of the Ripper mythos from its origins, to the present day.
Jack the Ripper may or may not have existed in a physical sense – many forests have been felled to service books aimed at nailing who he actually was. Here, the long list of possible Jacks is identified and examined, with the way in which each subsequent revelation served to exacerbate the legend insightfully explained. Indeed, the authors take their own swing at identifying who they believe the Ripper was, but I’m not giving that away here.
In addition to untangling a wealth of conspiracy theories, Saucy Jack considers the way in which the developing image of the Ripper has embedded itself in the popular consciousness, a dynamic that has been, and continues to be, extended via books, films, video games and even rock’n’roll. Parallel to this, the way in which the idea of Jack the Ripper as the first, and most elusive, serial killer has compelled others to follow in his bloody footsteps is also fully considered.
Both books are history, but not as AJP Taylor would feed it to us. Written from a hip, informed perspective, both books are thoroughly enjoyable, even for those – like myself – who have little interest in the subject matter. I will certainly be keen to snare myself copies of future instalments in this compelling series.Review by Dick 25/01/10