Sunday, August 16, 2015

Lessons Learned from Jack the Ripper

                                                                     Milton C. Toby photograph
 by Milton C. Toby

A few years ago, during a session with a prominent New York literary agent at a mystery writers' convention, I pitched an idea for a nonfiction book about the theft of the Thoroughbred stallion Shergar from a stud farm in Ireland. The incident drew international headlines at the time and stories still show up in the press occasionally, mostly when anniversaries of the theft roll around. The case never has been solved, at least not officially. For my money, the theft of Shergar remains Thoroughbred racing's most famous cold case, one deserving of a new look.

The agent's response was underwhelming.

"It might be an interesting magazine article," he said. "But it's not a book unless you find the horse."

That's not likely to happen. Shergar was a 5-year-old when he was stolen in 1983 and odds are that he was killed within days of the theft. In any event, the horse certainly is dead and buried now, and no one is talking. Claims that a bullet-riddled skull (turned out to be the skull of a cow) or other bits of bone dug up somewhere or other might be the long-lost remains of Shergar surface every now and then. So far, though, no luck.

I took the agent's advice, shifted my interest in Shergar to a back burner where it had been simmering for years, and moved on to an award-winning, three-book series about racing for The History Press. Working with The History Press was an excellent idea; taking the agent's advice about Shergar was not.

Now fast forward to Jack the Ripper.

I finished a lengthy book proposal in late 2014, investigating how performance enhancing drugs became embedded in racing's culture during the first half of the 20th Century, and found an agent to shop it around. So far, we haven't been able to convince publishers that the idea is not a niche book and that it has appeal beyond the typical small audience the industry expects for horse books. We'll see how that goes.

Recognizing Newmarket's centuries-old equine heritage
Copyright 2015 Milton C. Toby
Waiting for reluctant publishers to come to their senses, and with time on my hands due to some health issues, I revisited Shergar. I arranged a few interviews, enough to justify an initial fact-finding trip to Shergar's training yard in Newmarket, in London, and in County Kildare, Ireland. During our stay in London, on a rainy Monday evening, my wife and I joined about a dozen other people on a Jack the Ripper walk through Whitechapel. These walks visit several of the murder sites and are a significant cottage industry in London.

Our guide that night, Philip Hutchinson, is an author and a respected "Ripperologist" who investigates the mystery of Jack the Ripper. Although there are a batch of theories about the identity of the Ripper--some plausible, some not so much--no one knows for certain who went on a killing spree in 1888. Interest in Jack the Ripper remains high, nevertheless, and new books about the murders are published on a regular basis.

Hutchinson said that it wasn't realistic to expect a major breakthrough more than 125 years after the fact and explained that he hoped simply to uncover bits of information that might add a new dimension to the story of Jack the Ripper. Hutchinson and his fellow investigators either never received, or never paid any attention to, advice like that I received from the agent: "it's not a book" unless you solve the mystery.

Retracing the steps of Jack the Ripper on that rainy night in London brought to mind my original interest in Shergar from my days at Blood-Horse magazine and the goals for the trip and for my own investigative efforts. Absent a confession from someone directly involved in the theft, we probably never will know Shergar's fate. Despite that lack of certainty, I believe that there is a compelling story, one that has not been told, beyond the conventional wisdom that "the Irish Republic Army did it and they botched the job."

It's a story that I want to tell.

The agent's advice cost me some valuable ground when it comes to Shergar. Jack the Ripper reminded me that even the most well-intended advice sometimes should be ignored.

The dilemma for all of us, then, is how to sort out advice from an agent, a publisher, or a colleague, or suggestions about your work from a writing group. Any thoughts?




  1. Being an Author, whom do you feel will give you the right advice? Everyone has their own interest. Follow your path. I know it's tough to published a book and get a publisher. I feel that you are a good Author and you know what you are doing. I love everything about horses and I can't wait to see your book Milton in the book shelves.

  2. Milt, there are times when you have to follow your heart and your instinct - how about taking the plunge and publishing your book as an ebook? I'd love to read it. Let me know if you make a return trip to Newmarket - I'm not far away!

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  4. Milt - I agree. Go with your gut and follow your passion. In the changing climate of today's publishing world, who knows what will sell? But you've certainly piqued my interest, and I think you've got the right set of skills (and want-to) to bring this story to light. Can't wait to read it!