Short Take: Jack the Ripper had some very creepy company.
I’ve always been a big fan of the trifecta of disturbing reading: Horror, Mystery/Thrillers, and True Crime. The three genres do tend to have broad themes in common, such as violence, a puzzle to be solved, and usually, some kind of creepy setting (which, in the case of true crime, is often some perfect-looking suburb – YIKES). But there aren’t many specific subjects that combine all three genres.
Jack The Ripper is the exception. And, like Jack, Mayhem is the rare book that hits all three – the true crime, the mystery/thriller, and, most definitely, the horror.
There have been so many books written about the Ripper killings. Carefully researched nonfiction tomes, semi-factual novels in which the mystery is solved once and for all, speculative works in which the Ripper was actually some demonic force. And the movies… I wouldn’t know where to begin counting those.
I’m using a lot of words to say, Jack the Ripper is famous. Infamous. But what very few people know is that at the same time old Jack was doing his thing, there was a far more gruesome series of murders happening right nearby from 1887-1879. Dubbed the Thames Torso Killer, the murderer’s trademark was to dissect his victims and leave their body parts scattered around London and in the Thames River, each piece carefully wrapped and tied in paper or fabric.
All of the above is historical fact, and it is the setting for Mayhem.
Dr. Thomas Bond, the local coroner/early criminal profiler is trying to help the police get an idea of the type of madman they are dealing with, and the long hours of trying to get into the mind of a murderer are taking their toll on his life and career. He’s having no luck in solving the Ripper killings. He’s not sleeping, he has no love life, and his enjoyment of opium is turning into a full-fledged addiction.
In the midst of all this, a torso is found in the construction site of the new police headquarters. The body parts keep coming, and Dr. Bond quickly figures out that this is not the work of Jack the Ripper, that there are two killers stalking London’s slums.
During his investigation, he will team up with a couple of unlikely allies: a Jesuit priest with a habit of self-mutilation, and a madman, whose visions of the killings are destroying him.
Got all that? Good. Because there’s a lot more as well. We get to tour the opium dens of the late nineteenth century, where peaceful rest and dreams are only a puff away – for a price. We meet the charming Harrington family, who are Bond’s closest friends, as well as some of the other investigators working both cases. And we learn a bit of so many things!! From Eastern European folklore, to early forensic practices, Mayhem is overflowing with glorious nuggets of trivia and fun facts. I can’t imagine the amount of research that Ms. Pinborough did.
The male characters were beautifully, gloriously, human. Dr. Bond’s angst, and Kosminski’s terror and vulnerability were fantastic. The female characters were…. there. The only woman who appears in more than a couple of scenes is Juliana, and she’s a boringly perfect 19th century woman, who is very smart and very pretty and doesn’t do much of anything at all.
I take that back: there are also a few scenes from the point of view of one of the killer’s victims, but she also is not very interesting. All of her actions are nothing more than reactions to her former lover and later, the killer. She has no agency of her own. Typical of the times, I suppose, but not very engaging.
The setting of Mayhem is a series of interesting contrasts. There’s the squalor and grime and stink of Whitechapel, and the illusory tranquility of the opium dens, and the beautifully maintained drawing rooms where men have brandy and cigars and manly discussions.
It’s strange to me then, that somehow, Mayhem just didn’t quite work. There are a lot of great elements, like I said – the character, the setting, the cool mix of historical fact and supernatural entity. Maybe it’s because once you take away the “wow” factor of Jack The Ripper’s London, what you’re left with is a pretty boilerplate horror novel, where the unlikely trio have to join forces to destroy the centuries-old evil. I felt like the author created this beautiful setting, and breathed life into a couple of very interesting characters, and decided that was enough. I would’ve liked a little more mystery, some twists and turns, maybe a few red herrings – in general, just more story.
There’s a lot of surface glitter to Mayhem, but not a whole lot in the depths.
The Nerd’s Rating: Three Happy Neurons (and a hot shower. Believe me, you’ll appreciate it after this one.)