Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough

It's been almost a year since I started this blog, and I am just now starting to see a trickle of review copies coming in from publishers. Jo Fletcher Books, was the first company to send me more than a single title, and Sarah Pinborough's Mayhem was the first to arrive. After the Victorian themed disappointment of The Iron Wyrm Affair, I was a little hesitant to dive into another novel set in London during a similar time period. But Pinborough had me at Jack the Ripper, even though the infamous serial killer serves only as background to the infinitely more interesting tale of another set of grisly murders that were eclipsed by the Whitechapel killings. Pinborough does a superb job of threading historical fact with just the right blend of creeping and unsettling horror producing a novel of exceptional elegance and mood despite the viscera and violence of its premise.

Publisher's back copy follows:

A new killer is stalking the streets of London’s East End. Though newspapers have dubbed him ‘the Torso Killer’, this murderer’s work is overshadowed by the hysteria surrounding Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel crimes.

The victims are women too, but their dismembered bodies, wrapped in rags and tied up with string, are pulled out of the Thames – and the heads are missing. The murderer likes to keep them.
Mayhem, not surprisingly, opens with a murder. Pinborough plays it shrewdly though, focusing in on the fear and confusion of the victim rather than gratuitous blood splatter and screaming, and allowing the reader to catch the smallest of glimpse of the madness gripping this unknown killer. With the initial hook set, we are quickly drawn into the investigation through the eyes of Dr. Thomas Bond.

Bond feels a bit like a combination of Sherlock Holmes and his constant companion Dr. John Watson. A Police Surgeon with an uncanny ability to read people as well as their lifeless remains, Dr. Bond is also an opium addict, seeking out seedy opium dens at night for relief from his crushing insomnia and anxiety. Bond is the lens of much of Pinborough's narrative, and his struggles with addiction and the increasing horrors of both Jack the Ripper and the Torso Killer's murders lend the telling a sense of foreboding and brooding intensity. Pinborogh does a wonderful job of showing Bond in various social settings as befits a man of his stature, giving us a view not only of the man haunted by the horrors of his work but the man as seen by his peers, collegues and friends. Bond is not simply a means to supply the truth of the killings, an investigative paper doll, if you will. He is a living, breathng, complex and conflicted person. It is that depth of character that sustains Mayhem during its quiter moments.

As Bond delves deeper into the mystery of the Torso Killer, he finds himself allied with a nameless priest and the fictionalized real life personage of Aaron Kosminski, a suspect judged insane in the investigations of the Ripper murders. Kosminski is afflicted by terrible visions and is linked to the malevolent entity that is responsible for the Torso Murders, and perhaps the Ripper murders by the maddening influence its presence has on London itself. Kosminski and the priests absolute belief in the supernatural nature of the murders is directly at odds with Bond's more rationale approach. This dichotomy as well as the fact that Bond, a respectable gentleman, is now allied with people from such a completely different social strata gives the reader a real sense of the time period. Pinborough shows it all, from high society to gut knotting poverty and as a result London comes alive in the telling, a real character of its own rather than a convienient backdrop for her murder mystery.

Pinborough reveals the identity of the killer at near the halfway mark, and surprisingly it doesn't weaken the tale in the slightest. Most of this is due to her choice to give us the killer's point of view in flashback as he finds himself saddled with a supernatural creature that is slowly driving him mad. The sympathy created in this telling is important and adds to the horror that this "killer" will not be redeemed, and is just one more victim of the entity now haunting London. My only compaint is that the final confrontation could have been a bit more pulse pounding and acton  packed, but that wouldn't have fit with the creeping horror and descent into despair and madness that permeates the story. The ending is exactly what it should have been, my minor quibble aside.
Despite the fact that Mayhem works perfectly well as a stand alone novel, I was quite pleased to learn that Pinborough intends to return to Dr. Bond in a sequel. I'm not sure what the future holds for Pinborough's alternate London or her engaging protagonist, but you can rest assured I'll be along for the ride. 


1 comment:

  1. This is one of the books on my Kindle's TBR list! :D Glad to see you liked it. I shall make a point to pick it up soon!