Sarah Pinborough (sarahpinborough.com)
Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)
It is October 1888 and the people of London are already reeling from the series of murders committed by the man who has styled himself “Jack the Ripper”. When the rotting torso of a young woman is found in the vault of the building site that will eventually become New Scotland Yard, the immediate assumption is that it belongs to yet another victim of the Ripper. But police surgeon Dr Thomas Bond doesn’t agree – this is a much colder killer, without the fiery passion that defines Jack’s kills. As more body parts – from this victim and others – wash up on the banks of the Thames, panic sets in across the metropolis and Bond finds himself joining forces with a mysterious Italian Jesuit and an unwashed immigrant with an unwanted “gift” in an attempt to find and stop this new killer.
Pinborough takes, as the starting point for her latest novel, a series of unsolved murders that occurred in London around the same time that Jack the Ripper was operating, and a handful of historical figures who would likely have been involved in their investigation. At the centre we find Dr Thomas Bond, Police Surgeon, who plays both detective and biographer in this distinctly Holmesian tale. Bond is an insomniac who has found solace in the opium dens of Whitechapel and beyond. It is here, in the guise of a stranger who watches the addicts as they dream, that he believes he has found a connection to the murders. When Bond follows the man, he finds himself drawn into a search for the killer that is at odds with his role as Police Surgeon but which, he quickly realises, might be the only chance they have of catching this man before any more young women die at his hands.
Told, in the main, from the point of view of Bond, Pinborough also intersperses third-person narratives focusing on some of the other key players, as well as newspaper clippings from the period to create an engaging – moreish, even – read. Impeccable research and wonderful narrative styling combine to place the reader in the centre of the melting pot that was London towards the end of the nineteenth century. In choosing to ignore the more famous Ripper murders in favour of the lesser-known Thames Torso murders, Pinborough has given herself some room for manoeuvre and sets Mayhem apart from countless other novels set in the same period. The focus on Thomas Bond allows the Ripper murders to make a cameo appearance – Bond was involved in their investigation – and the author finds a perfect balance that allows them to become landmarks for the reader without ever becoming the focus of the story.
For the first half of the novel, Mayhem reads like a straightforward mystery novel with more than a little influence from Conan Doyle. At this stage, anyone and everyone is a suspect, and Pinborough introduces one character after another who may have had a hand in the murder and dismemberment of these women. Towards the middle portion, there is a slight shift; as we learn the identity of the killer, our suspicions change from the “did he do it?” to the less-tangible “what are his motives for being involved?”. It’s a deft piece of writing that leaves the reader satisfied that the who was never really important and, if anything, manages to increase the suspense we encounter from this point onwards. At this point, too, a supernatural element creeps into the story, the transition from “crime” to “horror” made all the more palatable by virtue of the fact that we see it through the eyes of Thomas Bond, a man of science faced with something he cannot explain.
Mayhem is the first in a series of books featuring Dr Bond. Instantly likeable, despite his flaws, he’s the perfect leading man. As one of the lesser-known members of the Ripper investigation team, Pinborough has the freedom to tweak his personality to suit her dark plots (for which she apologises in her short but informative Preface), safe in the knowledge that the majority of readers will be meeting the man for the first time, without the preconceptions that they might bring to, say, Frederick Abberline. It is difficult to imagine that anyone wouldn’t be looking forward to 2015’s Murder following their first encounter with Dr Bond.
Sarah Pinborough’s latest novel is the perfect mix of historical fact and fiction, Caleb Carr with a supernatural twist. Careful plotting, spot-on pacing and a sharp ear for the language of the period combine to make the reader want to come back for more. The use of the Ripper murders to provide context, without ever detracting from the importance of the Thames Torso murders, is the perfect device to place the reader in the middle of the smog-filled London of the late 1880s. Mayhem is a novel that obliterates genre boundaries, and is a must-read for fans of Sherlock Holmes, of the various legends of Jack the Ripper, and of crime and horror fiction in general. It’s a major showcase for the talents of Sarah Pinborough, who proves, once again, that she deserves a spot on everyone’s must-read list.
Kim Newman (www.johnnyalucard.com)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
Is there a more interesting and populated place and time in recent history than London in the twilight years of the nineteenth century? Peopled by a huge cast of people real and fictional, it is a location and period ripe with opportunity and ideas for any artist willing to do a little research. Anno Dracula, Kim Newman’s cult 1992 horror/romance/alternate history novel takes advantage of this and gives us a view on what London might have been like in 1888 had Dracula not only survived the events of Bram Stoker’s seminal novel, but married Queen Victoria and taken the title of Prince Consort. Published by Titan Books, this cult classic has once again been made available to a wide audience.
The book diverges from Stoker’s novel at the point where Dracula is interrupted in his attempt to “turn” Mina Harker; instead of fleeing, he kills Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris, scattering the rest of the group and finishing his business with Mina. From there, his rise to power is unstoppable, culminating in his marriage to the queen, and England’s move towards being the foremost vampire nation. As the novel opens, it is 1888, and Jack the Ripper has claimed his third victim. In this alternate universe, the Ripper is exclusively a killer of vampire prostitutes, which has the effect of forcing ever deeper the wedge between vampire and warm (humans). This is a very different London to the one we know: vampires occupy almost every position of power and a full-blown dictatorship is in effect. Dissenters and threats to the crown have been shipped off to concentration camps in the middle of the English countryside, where they will ultimately serve as cattle for the ever-growing vampire population.
Newman’s encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema and horror shines throughout. Only a handful of the characters we meet are original to the author. As well as the remnants of Dracula’s enemies – Dr John Seward and Arthur Holmwood, now Lord Godalming – we encounter, amongst others, the creations of Arthur Conan Doyle (Mycroft Holmes (his brother Sherlock ensconced in one of the aforementioned concentration camps), Moriarty), Sax Rohmer, H.G. Wells, Charles Dickens alongside the likes of Florence Stoker (her husband, Bram, sharing a compound with Sherlock Holmes), Oscar Wilde and Fred Abberline. Into this mix, Newman introduces Charles Beauregard, agent for the shady Diogenes Club, and Genevieve Dieudonne, a four-and-a-half century old vampire who is older even than Dracula.
Beauregard is a sort of nineteenth century John Steed, sword-cane and all: a man about town with a sinister and dangerous background and the skills to ensure his own survival at the expense of an enemy’s. Instructed by the cabal that runs the Diogenes Club (an institution that originates in the work of Conan Doyle) to investigate the Ripper murders, he meets the young-looking Genevieve and together they comb Whitechapel for clues to the identity of the murderer. All around them, the country is falling apart as growing dissent greets the ever tightening grip of the Impaler.
To use Newman’s own phrase, Anno Dracula is an ‘overpopulated period-set “romp”’, and a great deal of time can be spent – and fun had – trying to identify the origins of characters. Despite that, it’s a tightly-plotted and brilliantly-conceived novel that pays homage not only to Stoker’s Dracula, but to the vampire genre in general. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this novel is the fact that Dracula himself is absent for the vast majority of it, putting in a short appearance at the very end in a wonderful and wholly unexpected climax. Despite the subject matter, Newman presents us with a conceivable alternate London: the tensions between vampire and warm, between rich and poor; a city where the rule of law exists hand in hand with the ways of Vlad the Impaler and his kind; a city terrorised by an infamous murderer (the identity of whom is revealed to the reader in the first chapter) whose motives have been shaped to fit this new world order.
If, like me, you missed Anno Dracula the first time around, then this is the perfect opportunity to read one of the finest modern vampire novels ever written, up there with what I consider to the be the “big three”: Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Robert McCammon’s They Thirst and George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream. Once done, you can take comfort in the fact that Titan will be publishing several other books in the series, so you won’t have to wait too long for your next fix.
|THE MAP OF TIME
Translated by Nick Caistor
Released: 9 June 2011
I’m a big fan of fiction that uses actual historical figures or events as part of its fabric. Fiction like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist or Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club. So, I was excited when Felix Palma’s The Map of Time landed on my desk and I discovered that H.G. Wells and Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. The Elephant Man, were amongst its seemingly vast cast of characters. The Map of Time is the first of Palma’s novels to be translated into English.
As one reads, it soon becomes clear that The Map of Time is less of a conventional novel, and more a trilogy of interconnected stories, all of which have a number of things in common: they all feature to a lesser or greater degree the author H.G. Wells, and the fictional entrepreneur Gilliam Murray; they are all set in London, 1896; and they are all constructed around the central theme of time travel.
The first part of the novel concerns Andrew Harrington, a man on the verge of suicide, having spent eight years trying to come to terms with the death of his lover, the prostitute Marie Kelly, the last victim of Jack the Ripper. His cousin, sensing his intentions saves him from the fatal self-inflicted bullet, and introduces him to Gilliam Murray, proprietor of Murray’s Time Travel, in the hope that Murray can help Harrington travel back to 1888 and change the course of history. Unable to help, Murray directs the pair to the home of H.G. Wells, a man who recently shot to fame with the publication of his novel The Time Machine. Wells, as it turns out, has an exact replica of the very machine from his novel stashed in his attic – a working copy, no less – and agrees to help young Harrington out.
Part two tells us the story of Claire Haggerty and Tom Blunt, a pair of lovers who, it seems, are trapped in different periods of time. It is also the story of Murray and his time travel company, and begins to reveal something about the relationship that exists between Murray and Wells.
In the closing part of the book, a traveller from the far future summons Wells, Henry James and Bram Stoker to an old abandoned house with a dark history in the centre of London and tells them that their lives are in danger: a man from the future will, within the year, publish three novels under his own name. Those novels are The Invisible Man, The Turn of the Screw and Dracula. And, as Wells soon discovers, the only way this traveller will be able to get away with this is if the original authors are dead.
The novels gets off to a promising start. The Harrington section is concisely told. The language is beautiful, whether because of Palma’s original Spanish or Caistor’s translation – it’s an old-fashioned story told in an old-fashioned tone, by a narrator who has a tendency to break the fourth wall, which makes it almost like listening to one of Grandad’s old yarns.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book fails to live up to this excellent start. The story encapsulated in the middle section is interesting, and well-told, but somewhat overlong. Here, Grandad’s old yarn turns into that story he always tells when he’s in his cups, and everyone rolls their eyes, wishing for him to reach the point so they can talk about something more interesting. What is perhaps most disappointing, though, is that the third section seems totally unrelated to the first two, except that they share some characters and a plot device: namely time travel.
Here’s how it looks to me: Palma saw an interesting device in an early episode of Heroes (you’ll know it when you come across it, if you’ve seen the first season or two of the show), constructed a story around his own version of this device centred around the novelist H.G. Wells, introduced a couple of incidental characters and came up with a neatly-packaged, exciting story that ran about 150 pages. Then, in order to flesh out some of the incidental characters he produced a whopping 350 pages of backstory which had absolutely no bearing on the original story.
Which is not to say The Map of Time is a bad novel. It is, by no stretch of the imagination, a great novel, but it’s not bad. A bit on the long side, and could do with some trimming, but the first and last parts are worth the price of admission alone. Just don’t expect them to be the first and last parts of the same story. Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.