“Mayhem” begins with an italicized section but don’t let that put you off as the following 400 pages are a satisfying and enjoyable read. This is definitely a book to binge on, with likeable and sympathetic characters, gore aplenty, and a decent plot, and I’d particularly recommend it for long journeys or holidays.
Written in a pseudo-Victorian manner, with slightly stilted language and turns of phrase which I got used to after several chapters (to be honest, it helped immerse me in the London of 1888), “Mayhem” contains enough gore to illustrate the more revolting acts and occurrences but not so much as to render the reader blood-blind and unmoved. To be gruesome, it lubricates this book and keeps things moving.
I absolutely love the way Pinborough crafts her story around the true reports of the Thames Torso murders. She acknowledges the presence of Jack the Ripper in the city at the time as well as the fear his acts brought to the streets and homes of every inhabitant but doesn’t focus on it, which definitely gives the book more interest than if it were wholly fiction, though I’ll admit I’m less keen on the notion of fictionalising real people, as happens with key characters here.
“Mayhem” isn’t a straightforward historical murder-mystery/thriller though: there is a supernatural element too, which adds strength to the story and takes the reader to Russia in a fascinating side-trip. To say more would give the story away.
Every chapter has a heading and these are required reading – I point this out as a lot of people (myself included) skim them and go straight to the text block of story below, especially in the heat of wanting to find out What Happens Next. In “Mayhem”, however, although the main character – the almost hero – is the dedicated Dr Bond, there are other characters guiding the story, mainly written in third person, and I found it really easy to confuse them.
I’m not a historian, just a lover of history, but I have researched the 1850s through old newspapers and periodicals, and Pinborough gets the feel of the era just right. If you enjoy Ripperology and vintage gore, you’ll probably like this book, and luckily it’s the first of at least two starring Dr Bond. If you’re not so into the Ripper period but still want a Victorian London-based supernatural thriller, I would recommend the oddly beautiful “The Palace of Curiosities” by Rosie Garland instead – though if you really want to indulge, you’ll have both as a treat.
You can’t turn your brain off and just skim-read this book – there are too many characters and too much going on for that – but if you are willing to lose yourself in the dank and dangerous streets of Pinborough’s London, to immerse yourself in “Mayhem”, you’ll find yourself absorbing the happenings and people in it and wondering about them long after you’ve reached the end. Then if you’ve an appetite for it, you’ll go looking for “Murder”…