Sarah Pinborough – Mayhem

sarahpinborough-mayhemWhen a rotting torso is discovered in the vault of New Scotland Yard, it doesn’t take Dr Thomas Bond, Police Surgeon, long to realise that there is a second killer at work in the city where only a few days before, Jack the Ripper brutally murdered two women in one night.

But though just as gruesome, this is the hand of a colder killer, one who lacks Jack’s emotion.

Dr Bond, plagued by insomnia and an unshakeable sense of foreboding, has begun to spend his sleepless nights in a drug-induced haze in the opium dens down by the docks. He’s not the only man who looks like he doesn’t belong there: there is a stranger, a man in a long black coat, who studies the addicts as they dream.

As more headless and limbless torsos find their way into the Thames and Dr Bond becomes obsessed with finding the killer, he begins to suspect the stranger might be the key. His investigations lead him into an unholy alliance, and he starts to wonder: is it a man who has brought mayhem to the streets of London, or a monster?

Most historical crime fiction set in late 1880’s Victorian London is bound to be about that period’s most notorious murderer, Jack the Ripper. In Mayhem, however, Sarah Pinborough breaks the mould by focusing her historical crime fantasy – could a book have been more to my tastes or what? – on the, also never solved, Thames Torso Murders. For all I’ve read about the Ripper, I’d never come across these before and as such I found it a fascinating subject. I really enjoyed this view of London during the time of Jack the Ripper’s activities from an oblique angle. I also like that Pinborough doesn’t really address who Jack might be, other than having one of her secondary characters being a possible suspect.  

Pinborough paints a fantastic portrait not just of her protagonist, Dr Thomas Bond, but of his friends, associates, and adversaries as well. Her characters are colourful and well-fleshed out, even the relative bit-players, such as Bond’s housekeeper or the newspaper man Waring. Dr Thomas Bond is a complex character and a man both extremely proficient at his job and extraordinarily haunted by it. He operates not just as a medical examiner, but also as somewhat of a profiler avant-la-lettre and adding in his struggles with opiates, it would have been easy to let him become somewhat of a Holmes-derivative. But Pinborough doesn’t let him veer in that direction too much and of course, as opposed to Holmes, Bond has actual people skills. The way she depicts his continual justifications for his substance abuse – I’ll stop when I want to. I’m not depended on it. Just wait until this is over then I’ll stop etc. etc. – were very well done and rang true to life. Bond is an extremely sympathetic protagonist, one who engenders a lot of pathos and is somewhat of a tragic hero. It’ll be interesting to see how he develops in the next book.

The cast of characters surrounding Bond is divers and colourful. There’s his colleague Dr Hebbert, a jolly and loquacious man, who turns more and more morose during the narrative, due to the influence of the Upir, the black creature that’s responsible for the heightened violence and crime rate in the city. At one point, I even thought Pinborough might implicate Hebbert as Jack, but she actually steers clear actually stating any preference for the legendary killer’s identity—again, this book isn’t about Jack the Ripper. The other characters we see a lot of are Aaron Kominski, the mysterious stranger Bond spots in the opium dens, Hebbert’s wife Mary and their free-spirited and independent daughter Juliana, her fiancé James Harrington, and the policemen Andrews and Moore. I loved Kominski’s desperate battle against his visions and the constant fear he lives in, both induced by his visions and by the risk that he’ll be committed to a mental institution due to his erratic behaviour, and the way he manages to rise above it to do what he needs to do. Bond’s connection and unexpected (on his part) friendship with these people was well-drawn, especially the friendship that slowly blossoms between Bond and Andrews. This friendship also seems like the perfect hook for the next book. And I sincerely hope we’ll see more of him and his partner Moore then, as they were very cool characters.

Mayhem is a very well put-together book from its interesting mix of narration, to the viewpoints Pinborough provides us, to the plot and the utterly creepy villain/monster. Pinborough uses many very different forms of narration. There is Bond’s first person narration, several viewpoints narrated in third person, diary excerpts naturally set in first person and various real, contemporary newspaper articles. The author gives us several points of view beyond Bond, most importantly the chapters from Aaron’s point of view and those from Moore’s viewpoint. But there are also diary excerpts for the killer and we even get a number of chapters from the point of view of one of the victims. Yet whatever viewpoint we’re in at a given point in the novel, what never leaves the narrative is the slowly increasing all-pervading dread and fear of the violence. People were scared by the, for them, inexplicable rise in violence and the feeling of unsafety beyond what was usual in Victorian London. I found the supernatural element Pinborough introduces as her explanation for this fascinating and horrific at the same time.

This story hit all of my sweet spots: historical fiction, a mystery to solve and a fantastical element to the story. Combined with Pinborough’s smooth writing and a great balance between historical detail and info-dumping research, Mayhem made for a fabulous read. I know we’ll get to see Bond again in Murder, scheduled for 2015, but there are plenty of Sarah Pinborough books to get caught up on in the meantime and I hope to be able to get to them before the next Dr Thomas Bond book is out. Meanwhile, if you like historical crime fiction with more than a dash of the supernatural thrown in, Mayhem is a book you won’t want to pass by.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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  • I hear that Pinborough’s stuff is really good, though I haven’t read any of it yet. But from just about every blog that I’ve stopped by that’s reviewed her books, the reviews seem to be universally on the positive side. Must remember to pick up one of her books if I ever get the chance.

    • Mayhem was my first Pinborough book, but it certainly won’t be my last!