Generations hence, it’s entirely possible that people will revere 2013 as the year of Sarah Pinborough. She’s been absolutely everywhere of late—the first of her modern-day fairytales, Poison, was published just this month, merely a few weeks after North America’s introduction to The Forgotten Gods in A Matter of Blood—and that trend looks to continue for the foreseeable future: Ace Books plan to release the remainder of said supernatural noir trilogy before Christmas. Meanwhile, Poison will promptly be joined by Charm and Beauty too.
And then there’s Mayhem. Mayhem, which I enjoyed more than any of the Sarah Pinborough I’ve had the pleasure of reading previously. It’s a moody whodunit with an horrific twist, set in London during Jack the Ripper’s red reign. But this is essentially atmospheric set dressing: Mayhem revolves around another real life serial killer, namely the Thames Torso Murderer, and the factual figures who set out to apprehend him, or her... or it, as the case may be.
At the outset, the author confesses to playing slightly fast and loose with the truth, and I want to thank her for that: like one of the characters caught up in the terrible events Mayhem in a sense supplements, I may never have gone near water again otherwise, and that could’ve proved... problematic.
In any event, it’s 1888, and Saucy Jack is the talk of the town. London, however, is as loud as it is cowed, as Inspector Moore muses whilst discussing the state of play in the pub:
Londoners were strange folk, he had concluded a long time ago, never more alive than when in the presence of death. The food stands which had sprung up at the murder sites, the street theatres recreating the tableaux of the unfortunate women’s deaths: entertainment crafted by the grip of terror. Was it too much, perhaps, he wondered as he looked at the glazed eyes and flushed faces of those who filled the surrounding tables. There was something amiss in the people of the city, even he could sense that: a hysteria maybe. There had been too much violence done on London’s streets this year. It needed to slow down
It does anything but. Within weeks, Jack is back, and in the intervening period it’s become clear that the torsos in the Thames are the work of another murderer—thanks in part to the efforts of Dr. Thomas Bond, a Scotland Yard surgeon who sees “something... other,” something still more chilling than the Ripper killings, in the dismembered body parts he has examined.
Bond—our protagonist, and the only character whose chapters are related from the first person—is an insomniac opium eater who soon becomes obsessed with the Thames Torso case. When in the course of supplying his spiralling habit in a dingy den one evening he meets a man in a long black coat, he’s struck with the certainty that he has seen this stranger before. Eventually he connects the suspect to the scene of a previous crime... but Bond doesn’t immediately tell his superiors. He opts to follow the fellow himself.
Not right down the rabbit hole, but slowly, so. Little does our hero realise that the old man is hot on the heels his own embodiment of evil. With a perfectly straight face he refers to it as “a parasite [...] An ancient wickedness. Something from a legend almost forgotten. It is rotten. Old, earthy—but it is sentient; it wants our reactions to it. It wants us to hunt it. It enjoys the game.” Bond isn’t so far gone as to swallow the crazy stranger’s story whole. As he admits, “this nonsense was not what I had been expecting,” but in time he comes to wonder if their murderers, however differently envisioned, might not be one and the same... man or monster.
One of Mayhem’s greatest strengths is how the narrative of the novel develops in tandem with its central character. Bond is to begin with an upstanding man of science—and Mayhem, initially, is a fairly familiar crime thriller. Over-familiar, even, since it’s set in a time and a place explored to the point of pointlessness by any number of other authors. That said, Pinborough’s conceptualisation of ye olde East End is perfectly credible, and from early on, the reader realises that there’s something amiss in this picture; something fictional amongst the factual.
That’s the Upir, and the closer our protagonist comes to accepting the possibility of its existence, the more the story diverges from the crime thriller’s typical tack, carving a course of its own. Come the conclusion it’s hard to credit that there was nothing ostensibly speculative about the larger part of Mayhem’s narrative, because the feeling that there will be is pervasive from the first: a fine line between too much and not enough the author walks wonderfully.
Discovering what shape the supernatural elements of the tale will take is reason enough to read on, particularly considering the barely restrained manner and measure of Pinborough’s prose, but there’s much more to recommend Mayhem. However often we’ve seen it previously, its setting is exceptionally well rendered; its array of primary and secondary perspectives are purposeful and plainly entertaining... though in one case too pointed to buy into entirely. The atmosphere, however, is fantastic without caveat; meanwhile the pace is great—full steam ahead until the end—and the plot not at all ponderous.
Not a year’s gone by since Sarah Pinborough’s made her debut almost a decade ago that hasn’t seen the release a new novel with her name on it, so she’s always been prolific, if not to the extent she will be in 2013. You won’t catch this critic complaining in any case. A Matter of Blood was a high watermark for me amongst the work of hers I had read—a compelling blend of contemporary crime fiction and classic dark fantasy—but Mayhem is even better: wholly absorbing Victorian horror with just enough of the ordinary about it to set the extraordinary off.
Next stop, Murder most horrid!
Mayhem is published by Jo Fletcher. It is available in the UK April 25.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet, too.