Book review: ‘Mayhem,’ by Sarah Pinborough

Posted Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014  comments  Print Reprints


by Sarah Pinborough

Quercus, $24.95

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It’s much too simplistic — not to mention sarcastic — to say that Mayhem will be in bookstores just in time for a good Valentine’s Day read.

You know, your standard love story about a woman who marries the man of her dreams, only to find out he is the host to the most vile demon, which attached itself through a drink of water taken out of a river in the countryside in Poland.

No thanks, you say?

Indeed it’s no love story, but if you enjoy a true crime-novel combo, don’t pass on the newest work from British-born author Sarah Pinborough, who takes a cue from Dean Koontz in composing a new supernatural-whodunit-polyphonic thriller for those not of the faint of heart.

Mayhem is a historical novel revolving around the real events and murders associated with Jack the Ripper and the “torso killer” working along London’s Thames River in the 1880s.

Though the identities of both killers remain unknown more than 100 years later, Pinborough “solves” the torso mystery through the most mystic of means.

Actually, there are many living with heavy loads in Mayhem, in addition to a young bride married to James Harrington.

Among those people are the detectives of Scotland Yard, whose search for Jack the Ripper is further complicated when a new, even more vicious monster emerges from the city’s fog.

The protagonist is Thomas Bond, a doctor in the police department who is emotionally weighed down by this new killer’s methods and his victims, all women, who are killed, butchered and left to rot. Everything, that is, except their heads.

Bond seeks refuge from his burden in the seedy opium dens in the city. However, it’s there that he meets a Jesuit priest, who tells the doctor that his ministry has transformed from leading sinners to heaven to sending this demonic presence straight back to hell.

The third member of the triumvirate who ultimately solves the torso murders is a man named Aaron Kosminski, in real life and in the book a Jewish immigrant from Poland and person of interest in the Jack the Ripper killers.

Police, in real life and in fiction, have considered him insane.

Pinborough uses her license to make him a genius figure who can see things that others can’t.

In the book, Kosminski’s family is chased from its homeland because of its experience with the demon.

It is Kosminski who is able to put the pieces together to help solve the mystery, including the suggestion that the demonic host is someone close to Dr. Bond, who is understandably beset with the burden of suspecting his good friend’s son-in-law as the killer.

Bond confirms his suspicions one night at dinner when he actually sees the presence.

The demon that has attached itself to James Harrington is “fed” through the murders of these young women. Leading up to each murder, Harrington becomes deathly ill because of the parasite feeding on him and only recovers after another victim is sacrificed.

It’s difficult to know whether to feel sorry for Harrington, a young man of Pinborough’s imagination and developed as a character of means from England who runs into trouble after his well-to-do parents send him away after discovering his love affair with the neighbor’s housekeeper, Elizabeth Jackson.

Jackson, in real life, was the only torso killer victim ever identified.

When Harrington returns to London, he brings with him more than personal property. More than being merely “different,” he is the unwitting, hapless victim of demon possession.

He is unaware of what is happening during the murders. To him, the events are dreamlike. Yet, he knows something is awry and at one point even tells Jackson to stay away from him after the mysterious deaths of his parents, murders that she witnessed.

The story culminates with a confrontation in a vacant warehouse of the business inherited by Harrington.

The priest gets his long-awaited day with the demon and Bond must decide what to do with its host.

Quite a burden mayhem can be.

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