Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough
Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough (Quercus/Jo Fletcher Books, 2014) deals with an interesting cultural phenomenon. In the physical world, a dreadnaught might sail through a deep but narrow channel. The combination of water displacement and powerful engine would cause the wake to overflow the banks and there would be “mayhem” on the adjacent land. Now let’s convert this to the metaphor of the city as a living organism — for those of you who like a more academic gloss, this would be an example of autopoiesis, a living system which organises and maintains itself. If a “monster” was to move through such a city, it would leave a wake. Inevitably people discuss the signs of its passage and speculate on why it does what it does and where it might do it again. Fear and apprehension spread the ripples far and wide as newspapers and other media pick up the story. Hence, a criminal like Jack the Ripper on his rampage can cause far more mayhem than one man should be able to. The city amplifies the effect. Even in Victorian times, when this book is set, the magnification process still works. Indeed, because the age still lacks a backbone of rationality theoretically flowing from compulsory education, superstition and myth-making aggravate the problem.
The book is based on the real-world Thames Torso Murders which occurred in 1888 at the same time that Jack the Ripper was active. Both cases have remained unsolved but the mythologising has focused on Jack and, until now, little interest has been generated by these equally horrific crimes. Hence, the book is partly a work of historical fiction, recreating the class-ridden and crime-infested London with which we’re familiar. Given the unstoppable flood of steampunk, the Victorian era is currently being overexploited as a setting. Since these science fantasy stories often feature crimes of varying shapes and sizes, including the exploits of Jack (see The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder) people reaching this point in the review might fear this book is derivative and unoriginal. Yet that is far from the case. This is an author with a real command of the craft of writing and this book finds her at the top of her form. This is how Victorian true crime novels should be written! Except, of course, this author is not known for staying within conventional genre boundaries and we’re soon haring off in pursuit of a quite different form of killer. What starts as a true crime novel slowly morphs into a supernatural thriller.
In the opening chapters, we meet the surgeon Thomas Bond. He performs the autopsies and offers his forensic skills to the detectives in charge of the more challenging cases in the emerging police force. This is drawn from fact but, in spirit, he’s not unlike Joseph Bell who was the role model for Sherlock Holmes. The book retains complete authenticity by having a reporter use his dog to help find the missing body parts. This gives us a firm footing from which our forensic hero can set off in pursuit of the “monster” responsible for abducting these women and then dismembering their bodies. As a gruesome fact, this murderer removed the uterus from the women. There has never been an explanation for the dismemberment (modern profilers might suggest the killer keeps the heads as trophies) or the removal of the female organs of reproduction. This book suggests an interesting explanation for this behaviour.
The impressive aspect of this second stage in the narrative is that the style of its presentation is indistinguishable from the straight history that has gone before. There’s no need to make any formal change to the style. True crime is just as horrific as supernatural manipulation. So when Thomas Bond hears a story about a parasite, it offends his scientific mind. But when he hears the same story from a second source, it becomes more likely that it’s true. But how can he know for sure? Can there be tests for supernatural monsters? Well, I can see it might be challenging for modern science, so you can imagine the problems before you could take fun selfies with an MRI or similar machines to make the body transparent to human eyes. Fortunately, what turns into a gang of three (possible religious overtone there) has a propensity for derivatives from the poppy. It’s surprising what you might get to see if you smoke, drink or otherwise ingest something to stupefy. But once you start dabbling with drugs, how far can you trust your own senses? By definition, their operation is being distorted. The result is a carefully described journey where the rational man of science is seduced into believing in the irrational. It’s not a pleasant experience. Not only does he have the physical evidence on his autopsy table, he has the stench of death which rises like a miasma from the River Thames, infecting all those who stray too close to the host. And it’s through the wider population that the mayhem comes. When fear is rampant on the streets, the rational response is rarely going to be the right one. At some point, propriety has to be set aside and our three join the battle to save London’s soul.
Mayhem is a terrific piece of sustained writing, taking the tired streets of fictional Victorian London and reinvigorating them through the introduction of an ancient enemy. It’s well worth reading whether as historical true crime fiction or as a supernatural thriller.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.