Wednesday, 8 May 2013


It's odd that people still get excited when the crime and horror genres bleed into each other, since it's a natural slipstream which has been explored since at least the Victorian times. It's not just that horror involves the perpetrating of crimes, but there's also a stylistic merger: just as an example, point of view serial killer novels or police procedurals often follow the slow reveal and then gory suspense of the horror thriller. Like all genre blends, it works best when elements associated with one are brought into another, as John Connolly did by bringing a hard-boiled detective sensibility into a horror setting. Or maybe it was the other way around.

It's something that Sarah Pinborough has done with Mayhem, a mixture of crime thriller, police procedural, and horror set in the London of Jack the Ripper, and specifically dealing with the so-called Thames Torso murders, which were contemporaneous with the Ripper killings, and similarly unsolved. The novel follows the police surgeon, Thomas Bond, one of a number of characters who were real players in the Ripper and Torso hunts, and uses a number of other historical figures as well. This works particularly well because it sets up a parallel pathway—Pinborough's novel starts as a procedural, and moves slowly but inexorably into the horror mode, but as Bond gets more and more involved with the Torso murders, the stark reality of the Ripper killings provides an anchor in criminal reality, and reminds us that not all horror is supernatural. A modern trope, at least since Silence Of The Lambs, has been the empathetic understanding between monster and pursuer; here we get Bond relying on a pepped up version of his opium dream to be able to commune with the horror directly.

Bond himself is otherwise a somewhat diffident hero and reluctant investigator. He is an opium addict, needing the drug to escape from the brutal reality of his job—I was reminded of Noodles in Once Upon A Time In America during some of the opium den scenes—and the repressive reality of Victorian England. It's something from which he seems almost afraid to break free, and here again Pinborough is drawing subtly the link between the repression that characterises society and the brutal expression of rage that shocks it. This isn't new, not since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it benefits from the relatively modern attitude that the horror writers brings. Thus his relationship with his colleague's daughter echoes some of the best moments of Dracula, not least because it needs to transcend the small-world coincidences that draw the protagonists together.

Pinborough is also remarkably good at conveying the feel of the time, in dialogue and narration, without going to stilted period usage. A few small things ring awkwardly, particularly in some of the newspaper extracts, but this blending of period and modern is the kind of thing costumed crime drama on BBC has tried to do (Ripper Street) with far less success. To an extent, this is helped by the way Pinborough pans away from the Ripper killings, as if reminding us that behind our preoccupation with them, there were other literal horrors taking place, and back seat, to them.

Her book is strongest at the start, as Pinborough sets the scene and delineates the killings. The advantage here is that, as you would in a good crime novel, she creates enough ambiguity to keep the reader uneasy about the actual provenance of any of the characters, including Bond. She even introduces Aaron Kosminski, historically one of the Ripper suspects, but gives him what turns out to be a very different role. The characterising is sharpest here, because of that ambiguity. At the point the horror behind, literally, the murders is revealed, much of that ambiguity disappears, and the story becomes a much more straight-forward tale of how that horror is going to be tracked down and defeated. Here is where the characters in the final confrontation might need deeper drawing out, and indeed following the climactic confrontation there might have also been some further settling of issues—though a sequel, Murder, is already in the works, and may fill in some of those blanks.

If you think of how most serial killer novels, once the killer's identity is known, become a race against the clock, here the switch to the nominal horror villain gives Pinborough an edge, in which the clock is only part of the equation. But the story builds well, pulling the reader in, then races to a climax which does satisfy, at least enough to make the wait too long until the sequel appears.

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough
Quercus/Jo Fletcher £14.99 ISBN 9781780871257

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

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