Set in London during the Ripper years, Sarah Pinborough tells the untold tale of another serial killer preying on the inhabitants of the city, and of the investigative team which takes the bloody cases on. As you would hope, the novel evokes London at its dank and grisly best, with the story interwoven with real newspaper accounts of the murders of the day – a touch which adds darkness and veracity to the story, and brings London to day-to-day life.
So far, so historical, and indeed the careful research shows in the way the setting is evoked and the day to day lives described, and in the authors knowledge of the London – and wider world – we have a chance to explore. This is no caricature of the city, which would be tempting to do with a Not-Jack-The-Ripper story, Mayhem offers an unsensationalised portrait of the docks, markets and neighbourhoods in which the characters work, suffer from insomnia, seek oblivion and live their lives. Likewise the mystery is a carefully structured pleasure, pacing the plot reveals and emotional playoffs with skill and playing the different points of view off against each other in an enjoyable battle of wits and revelations. It may, at moments, be a little too clever and a little emotionally cold, but the pace and the story are more than enough to keep the pages turning.
And so to the twist; because in addition to a strong setting, good story and intriguing set of murders, there’s an is-it-or-isn’t-it pyschological – or supernatural – twist to the tale which lends an extra dimension to the story. Is our killer ill, or are they possessed? The narrative plays with the question, drawing in the Grand Tour, international mythology and mental illness along the way to create a story which can be interpreted as the reader prefers – and that’s part of the fun of this accomplished and smart novel.
I’d recommend it to anyone who read The Shining Girls without hesitation, or who followed Whitechapel on the BBC and enjoys a good historical mystery. While Mayhem stood alone, for me, it’s the first of a two-part series which will culminate with Murder, and is a great, sometimes chilling, summer read.