Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough

April 17, 2013

When 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.

Though just as gruesome, this is the hand of a colder killer, one who lacks Jack’s emotion. And, as more headless and limbless torsos find their way into the Thames, Dr Bond becomes obsessed with finding the killer. As his investigations lead him into an unholy alliance, he starts to wonder: is it a man who has brought mayhem to the streets of London, or a monster?

Earlier this week @Madnad took a look at Poison by Sarah Pinborough. Only two days later and I’m reviewing another new release from her. We find ourselves asking the tricky question – Is it possible to achieve the double and have two great Sarah Pinborough books released within the space of one week?*

When it comes to darker fiction there is something wonderfully evocative about Victorian London isn’t there? Foggy streets and dark lonely alleyways feel like the ideal habitat for a sadistic killer. At the tail end of the nineteenth century, the Empire’s capital is a city where life is often cheap and any maniac can go about his dreadful business relatively unmolested by the law.

There are those however, that will stop at nothing to try and stop a murderer. Rather than concentrate on the investigations of the police, whose attentions are focused on Jack the Ripper anyway, the main narrative of Mayhem follows Dr Thomas Bond. The good doctor has become fixated on a series of crimes that are just as cruel as Jack’s gory work, but seem to bear a different signature.

Bond’s growing obsession is at the core of Mayhem. He pushes himself to the limit of sanity while trying to uncover the truth. He is a haunted character, traumatic events in his past have left him all but broken. The only thing that keeps him going is this burning need to know what is going on and why. Barely sleeping, hardly eating he allows the killer to be become his entire world.

Bond is not alone however, there are other poor souls who are just as desperate for answers. A timid Russian immigrant, Aaron Kosminski, walks the city streets trying to avoid what he feels is an inevitable confrontation with evil. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure watches every move that Bond makes. What force has drawn both a religious zealot and a troubled barber into this dark world?

A word of warning, those of a nervous disposition may wish to consider something a little less graphic. This is a story that features a killer whose targets are exclusively female and Pinborough certainly doesn’t pull any punches. These were dark times, and there are plenty of violent deaths to emphasize that fact. In one memorable scene, a victim sits waiting for her impending death. She has accepted her fate and almost longs for the release from her life. This manages to be both horrific and at the same moment heartbreakingly sad. The blurb from the back of the book gets it bang on. We’re talking torsos, dismemberment and beheadings here people. This is grisly stuff that’s not for the faint of heart.

There is so much wickedness at work in the city I feel as if I can almost touch it. We are surrounded by it.

Side by side with the violence, addictions are also commonplace. Dr Bond’s drug of choice is opium and the Chinese opium dens of the London docks play a pivotal role in proceedings.  There are moments where the reader gets to follow Bond while he is under the influence, and there is a suitably hazy quality to his actions. Are the things he is seeing real, or the effects of his drug habit? I like that ambiguity, it’s almost as though Bond has reached a point where he can no longer trust his own senses.

The supernatural elements in Mayhem are slowly drip fed to the reader as the plot unfolds. Things start small but build, keeping pace with the rest of the narrative, so at a certain point everything fits together seamlessly. Borrowing liberally from Russian folklore, I’ll offer no further spoilers other than to say I rather enjoyed the nature of this evil.

In a bold move, the identity of the killer is revealed to the reader about half way through the novel. I have to admit I was initially a little unsure about this, but I needn’t have worried. Rather than spoiling anything, this has given the author the opportunity to explore the killer’s back story in more detail. The reader gets the opportunity to learn what makes this particular monster tick.

The writing expertly treads that fine line between good crime and good horror. Don’t be fooled, Mayhem isn’t some sanitized costume drama. Characters are destined to suffer in all manner of gruesome ways. This is a novel filled with demons of every variety. From the psychological to the physical, some imagined while others are real. As events build to a conclusion, everyone is forced to confront their own nightmares. Dr Bond is plagued by habitual insomnia and his addiction to narcotics. The zealot is racked by guilt and religious fervour, while Kosminski is hounded by bloody visions. No one is left unscathed by the malevolent presence that haunts London.

Highlighting the importance of good research, there are a plethora of smaller details that help to give things an air of authenticity. There are newspaper reports that feature throughout the text and they are all genuine. Pinborough has taken these horrible events as the jumping off point for her tale, weaving the elements of her fiction expertly with the threads of truth. Some of the best fiction has its basis in fact, and that is definitely true here.

Dark and engrossing, I was hooked from page one. I just had to know what happened next. Mayhem really will mess with your brain in the most delightful of ways. This is a superb read and I look forward to more with the publication of Murder in 2014.

Mayhem is published by Jo Fletcher Books and available from the 25th April.

*Turns out the answers is an enthusiastic YES. Why? Two reasons – (1) Miss Pinborough is a bloody good writer and (2) she’s just that damn prolific.

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