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.