18 April 2013

Review: "Mayhem" by Sarah Pinborough

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance copy of this book.

"Mayhem" is a book not to be pigeonholed. It has crime, but it's not a police novel. It's set in the later nineteenth century, but is definitely not a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. It has the supernatural, and horror, but it's not trying to evoke Bram Stoker. If there were a space between these for a kind of Victorian-urban-fantasy-detective-noir (emphasis on the noir) this might be it. But it's probably better just to enjoy the fact that Sarah Pinborough's new book is... different.

The book is mainly set in 1888 and 1889, at the time of Jack the Ripper. It features real historical characters (doctors and police who were involved in the hunt for the Ripper) and weaves around real events. But it's not "Ripper fiction". Nor is it (thank goodness) True Crime. Instead, Pinborough has created a background, an atmosphere, a taint, which has infected London, the Ripper murders being one consequence. It is this underlying cause which is the true subject of the story and which Dr Thomas Bond, the police surgeon, investigates.

The narrative mainly follows Bond and Aaron Kosminski, a Jewish Russian refugee whose story begins, in flashback, a few years earlier. (There are a couple of other viewpoints too, whose relevance emerges gradually). Of the two, Kosminksi is written with more verve. He is a fantastical creation, a man who loathes both blood and water and has dreams that foretell the future (he glimpses terrible evil coming to his family and people - historical events of course give the story a very dark context indeed).

Compared to Kosminski, Bond seems flatter, reflecting his semi-official status (and also perhaps also the fact that he was a real person). He does though have his vices, and is increasingly to be found in the opium dens of the East End. At the start this is to escape from sleepless nights, but in time he begins to think that the drug will assist him in hunting down the horror that is behind the "Thames Torso Murders". These were as real as the Ripper killings, and as unsolved, and their investigation is the main focus of the book. It leads Bond to a terrible conclusion, that there is a more than human wickedness behind the Torso killings.

Pinborough is good at evoking the atmosphere of panic as the two sets of crimes continue: the scarcely suppressed hysteria, the Press frenzy, the casting about for someone to blame (whether the police for failing to find the murderer, or suspect foreigners). I think it's one of this book's strengths that in describing it all she avoid any temptation to adopt musty Victorianisms. At one stage she refers to "smog" - language underpinning the sense that what is happening is current, not confined to a distant land of pea-soupers, Hansom cabs and policeman with whistles. This in turn highlights Bond's dilemma: he is a rational scientist, a doctor, in many ways a very modern investigator seeking to apply the science of his day (in one scene he scoffs at a constable who believes that a photograph of the dead woman's eyes will reveal an image of her killer). Yet he is forced to confront the possibility of the supernatural - or the alternative, that he's losing his sanity.

It's all made very real. This is a fine book - I'm pleased to see that there is a sequel coming.