Thank you! Finally! For a year I’ve been in the grip of a fascination with stories set in Victorian England (and there is no shortage of them) but a sad majority of them seem to generally waste their setting. Steampunk fiction loves it, but its often just the modern world with a sheen of top hats, clockwork and manners over it; I’ve been hoping for something that digs deep into the grim, smog-soaked atmosphere of the whole place. And, apparently, Sarah Pinborough’s Mayhem is it.
Jack the Ripper is at work in Whitechapel, but this isn’t a story about him. Instead, London is in the grip of something darker and more supernatural – something inspiring bloodlust and murder in the people of the city. Jack is just a symptom. Dismembered bodies of women (based on real-life murders) are popping up everywhere and Dr Thomas Bond is involved in the case. Suffering from exhaustion and and ever-growing sense of dread, he finds himself sinking nightly into the hazy fumes of the opium dens, unsure what is madness and what is real.
Mayhem sets itself up as a murder mystery, but in fact, that’s not really what it is. It’s more in the vein of supernatural horror, and the book switches gears abruptly mid-way when the identity of the killer is revealed to the reader (although not to the characters – which is my only gripe with the book; it then takes a good hundred pages for the rest of the characters to get their boots on, hemming and hawwing about something we knew ten chapters ago.) Which means that, facts of the case aside, the book has to fly on its atmosphere. Which it does admirably. Pinborough invests every moment stealing around London with a gloomy fatalism – grisly, festering and damp. From the marvellously realised opium dens, via the crumbledown tenements in which a mysterious priest lurks, to the oppressive walls of the high-class townhouses, this is Victorian England without polishing up the silver, and I’ve been looking for a book like this all year.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a perfect book. The aforementioned slow journey to the denouement means that, looking back, the actual plot of the book feels rather slender compared to the force of storytelling put into it, but the adept painting of side characters (victims and assistants boths) and fascinatingly flawed portrait of its main character make it well worth a read. The sequel, Murder is on its way to me as I write.