Written by Sarah Pinborough — As a setting Victorian London seems to be a mainstay in crime fiction. It will always of course be associated with that most famous of detectives, Sherlock Holmes, but there is also Sexton Blake, Dickens’ Bleak House, and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. More recently, a new generation of authors have been using the fog-shrouded cobbled streets of gaslight London as a setting for their crime stories. For example there was Kate Summerscale’s phenomenally successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. George Mann has blended Victorian detection with elements of steampunk and fantasy. Alex Grecian (The Yard, The Black Country) and DE Meredith ( Devoured, The Devil’s Ribbon) have both explored the beginnings of forensic science in the Victorian era. Now the novelist and screenwriter Sarah Pinborough arrives with Mayhem, combining Victorian detection with the supernatural.
In 1886 a young man is travelling across Europe. He has been sent away by his wealthy family in the hope that his experiences will help him forget his relationship with another family’s maid. He returns changed in a way his family couldn’t have conceived, cursed by an ancient evil that needs to feed…
In 1888 London is in the grip of Jack The Ripper and the task of conducting autopsies on his victims falls to the widowed Dr Bond, a sensitive man just as attuned to the atmosphere of the city and psychology of his patients as he is to their physical symptoms. He has detected around him a violent oppressive atmosphere, as though the city were changed in some way. Frazzled with insomnia, he has begun to frequent the opium dens of Whitechapel, finding peace only through the pipe. There he witnesses a priest with a withered arm passing amongst the opium smokers, stopping over the semi-comatose addicts to inspect them in some way.
Soon a new series of murders begins, with women being killed and then cut into pieces. Body parts are found across London and recovered from the Thames, but the heads are never discovered. The police are inclined to blame The Ripper, but Bond discerns a method within the madness and he realises London faces not one serial killer but two. Bond spots the mysterious priest outside an inquest into one of the killings but he is gone before Bond can speak to him. Knowing he will get no rest until the new killer is found he returns to the East End opium dens in search of the priest. What he learns he knows will never be believed by the police and doubting his own sanity Bond allows himself to be drawn into the hunt for a sick killer with only the priest of an obscure Catholic sect and a weak Russian Jewish immigrant, who came to Britain to escape persecution, for support.
This is a really enjoyable book. Pinborough builds up a gothic atmosphere and she does it without resorting to cliche. Pea-soupers and hansom cabs barely get a look in. Instead she puts Dr Bond through the wringer, piling on work, doubt, guilt and in the end making him face a terrible moral dilemma.
Whilst the supernatural element is unmistakeable, this is a crime novel at heart and wary readers certainly shouldn’t be put off. Central to Mayhem is Dr Bond and this is an exploration of how his professional duty and moral courage drive him to solve the murders. The supernatural element adds atmosphere in the way Conan Doyle used the spectral beast in The Hound of the Baskervilles. A novel, by the way, in whose company this excellent book belongs.
The second in the series, Murder, is due in 2015. I, for one, can’t wait.
Jo Fletcher Books
CFL Rating: 5 Stars