Terror in the Thames: Murder by Sarah Pinborough

Mayhem was “a moody whodunit with an horrific twist, set in London during Jack the Ripper’s red reign.” This was essentially set dressing, however.

Instead of simply reiterating that grisly business, as many such texts have been content to, Sarah Pinborough’s plot revolved around “another real life serial killer, namely the Thames Torso Murderer, and the factual figures who set out to apprehend him,” including Dr Thomas Bond, Police Surgeon, who returns—rather the worse for wear—in Murder.

Spoilers follow immediately for Mayhem, so beware.

It’s been six years since the shocking events at the end of Mayhem, which saw Bond and his assistants in all things mystical—a priest and a pauper—catch and kill the Thames Torso Murderer: one James Harrington; husband of the beautiful Juliana, whose heart the doctor dearly desires.

Harrington, for his part, was hardly to blame for his horrendous descent: it was the Upir—a violent parasite he picked up in Poland—which led him down that dark path. And though the host is dead, the creature he carried on his back lives still… and hungers, I shouldn’t wonder.

Murder begins with Bond feeling free of these fears for the first time in recent years, and planning, at long last, to propose to Juliana. But his hopes have to go on hold when an American friend of Harrington’s arrives in the capital with a collection of confessional letters which implicate their late acquaintance in some truly unspeakable deeds.

To keep up appearances, he has to be seen to take these seriously, and inevitably, his investigations lead him back to Jack. Harrington, he realises, couldn’t have been the Ripper, as he had in his heart of hearts hoped… but perhaps his parasite played a part. Perhaps the mayhem that the Upir created in its wake drove another member of Juliana’s family to madness. Perhaps her outwardly affable father, whose alibi falls apart the moment Bond subjects it to the slightest scrutiny, is a killer in their midst.

In this way the unfortunate doctor’s torment begins again:

Although I wasn’t being troubled by that awful sense of dread that had plagued me during those terrifying months when blood seeped into every stone of London’s streets, my mind would not rest, and at night, when the inner world had a tendency to become as dark as the outer one, scorpions of doubt and suspicion skittered wildly within my skull. I had done my best to push the priest and the Upir from my thinking, but if Charles Hebbert was Jack, then it was strange that two such terrible killers had come to live under one roof.

Eventually, Bond has no choice but to visit the aforementioned pauper in the hospital, but he takes more than confirmation away from Leavesden that day. He also inherits the Upir, which Kosminski had been keeping… though he refuses to believe it.

This proved a source of some frustration for me, I’m afraid. Bond’s unwillingness to accept the existence of the Upir, even when he has seen it previously and is clearly feeling its effects—fever and a need to feed—speaks to a certain paucity of plot, and very nearly stalls the whole story at a pivotal point:

There had been madness at work, I now knew: my own madness of reason and science, my arrant refusal to believe in everything that had been right before my eyes. I dismissed the priest as a lunatic, blamed all memory of the Upir on drug-addled imagination. What a fool I had been—and now it was I who was cursed, just as James Harrington had been.

Murder does get back on track afterward, but suffice it to say I felt the same frustration again later, as regards Bond’s refusal of any real responsibility for the crimes he commits to quiet the creature. As in the first instance, this serves to extend the overall narrative unnaturally, in addition to undermining the credibility of Pinborough’s formerly formidable central character.

That said, there remain a number of reasons to recommend Murder, not least the refreshingly unsentimental romance at its emotional core. To be brief, Bond’s proposal doesn’t get the desired reaction from Juliana, in part because she conceptualises her relationship with him differently than he does, which her feelings for Harrington’s American friend helps her come to terms with. This, I think, is how love triangles are done: with measure as opposed to excess, and a depth of development that goes beyond the usual swooning.

The atmosphere, in the erstwhile, is magnificently sinister, and I was, once again, very impressed with Pinborough’s depiction of London. Here we see it per the perspective of Bond’s aforementioned romantic rival:

It was, like New York, a vibrant and exciting city, and like his own home, had many areas of filth and excessive poverty. But London was actually more like Paris: the air was thick with history and its streets filled with secrets so old that even the worn stone had begun to forget them. But the more he saw, the more he realised that neither was it entirely like Paris. The French capital’s recent history might be bloodier, but it was nonetheless a city that oozed seduction. London was all grime and grit and labour. There was no romance here. In London even the river worked.

Or, rather, something in it does…

Murder makes good on much of the unresolved promise of its predecessor, but I dare say it doesn’t feel like a fully-fledged sequel to Mayhem so much as a prolonged postscript, or a last act artificially protracted. It’s well worth reading if you fell for the first book of the duology, as I indubitably did, but if you didn’t, the second certainly isn’t going to convince you.

Murder is available May 1st from Jo Fletcher Books (UK).

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.


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