Book Review: Mayhem, by Sarah Pinborough

Dear Friend,

In the name of God hear me I swear I did not kill the female whose body was found at Whitehall. If she was an honest woman I will hunt down and destroy her. If she was a whore God will bless the hand that slew her…

– from a letter, recieved on the 5th of October

1888. Signed: Jack the Ripper

For my Year of Reading Women I’ve already started reading books from outside my usual genres – and Sarah Pinborough’s Mayhem is a book that definitely falls outside my normal reading territory. Or so I thought when I picked it up.  The back cover mentioned London, and the year 1888 – another book about Jack the Ripper.

But it wasn’t.

Mayhem is a novel about another killer, one who, like Jack the Ripper, was never caught, and may have committed multiple murders in the fog-cloaked, gas-lit London of Victorian times. I’ve always been interested in the Whitehall Mystery (and a couple of other possibly-related murders of the time.) I mean, the guy killed and chopped up a woman, and buried her body inside a construction site. The construction site was where they were building the New Scotland Yard building. It’s ironic that one of the world’s most famous police buildings is atop an as yet still-unsolved murder site.

Anyway. Mayhem was a bit of a struggle for me, to begin with. Settling into a historical fiction story, combined with having a police doctor as the main character (boring!) That’s not the sort of fiction I would regularly read. I was worried I had picked up a police procedural novel or something. Even when the good doctor is revealed as an opium addict. I didn’t find that especially surprising, particularly as I’m obsessed with history, and humans have been hiding their vices from one another for as long as humans have had vices (forever.)

It was the speculative fiction element of the story that caught me. The Upir. A vampire, or devil, clinging to the back of the murderer.

You don’t see him. Unless you are about to die.

And Jack is just a side-effect of this monster’s presence in the Thames.

I quite liked this book, and once I got past my own preconceptions it got better, and became a page turner, and as the conclusion approached I couldn’t stop…


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