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The pollution of the Thames: Book Review of ‘Mayhem’ by Sarah Pinborough

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Based on actual murders that are sometimes attributed to Jack the Ripper and sometimes to a nameless serial killer, the Thames Torso Killings happened in London in the late 1880s. Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough is a fictional account of these homicides. She uses the personas of the real detectives and forensic doctors who investigated the crimes. Since the killings defy logic it easier for Pinborough to steer her story towards the supernatural.

Dr. Thomas Bond works for Scotland Yard as a police surgeon and is tasked with telling detectives exactly how victims met their tragic ends – very CSI. His most recent case has him examining the bodies of women who have had their heads and legs removed before being dumped into the river. Although he can roughly explain the “how” of the murders he is having difficulty coping with the “why.” His anxieties are having an effect on him with trouble sleeping that have led to more late nights out partaking in his opium vice in various unsavory dens.

In another part of the city, Aaron, a recent Polish immigrant is having horrible visions. He has had similar prophecies before, a gift/curse he inherited from his grandmother, and it was upon his recommendation that his family leave Poland because he had a vision that the death of a Czar, killed hundreds of miles away, would somehow eventually be blamed on them. All was fine in their new life in England until Aaron started having the visions again. His is so troubled by his dreams he cannot function as a barber. Further, he refuses to wash for fear of water. In other words, he is no delight to have skulking around the flat.

Also wandering around London Town, opium dens in particularly, is an Italian priest with a withered hand that is searching for someone or something. Dr. Bond first notices the man during a visit to his favorite den and starts to make inquiries which eventually leads to the formation of an odd triad set to find and then destroy (or at least contain) the force killing women in such a gruesome manner – wrapping up body parts and heaving them into the Thames.

What I enjoyed about Mayhem was the use of several red herrings. Throw in a pretty maid who the son of the house is smitten, along with a boisterous American touring Italy, and a little dog who can sniff out any hidden body part and you have a herring entrée. With that said, Pinborough reveals the “villain” fairly early so the storyline becomes the intrigue as to how the trio will discover and defeat him/her/it. If they manage to pull it off, what will be the consequences? Speaking of which, it is the examination of the consequences that falls short and gives the ending a too abrupt feel. There are still major questions left unanswered – like should one simply avoid the Thames as all costs? Granted, I don’t want to go swimming in it, but heck can’t a girl walk over Tower Bridge without some concern? The book was published last year and it appears that Pinborough is set to make a series of Mayhem novels so these questions may be answered later on.

I recommend Mayhem if you are interested in crime fiction based in the Victorian Era. It is pretty standard storytelling. Parts of it were very interesting which made the flat ending feel all the more disappointing. Overall I did not think the characters were so well drawn that I will rush out to read the second book in the proposed Mayhem series.

On a side note; a plug for the fine Kansas City Library system! Although I think they have my email wrong (wait, they don’t (just received notification that Mayhem is soon due, so why haven’t I received notice of upcoming events and that other book I requested?) I was very impressed with all of the improvements that have been happening when I was led astray by things that sparkle and shine. For one thing you can download books to read! Also it is a snap (cough, cough) to get books by ordering them through the Internet – this isn’t something totally new, but has been drastically improved, especially with the website geared towards various categories. Thus with bookstores on the endangered list, if your library card is at the bottom of your sock drawer or completely MIA (I would like to think that my old library card is right now sitting in a Reno casino playing nickel slots – its false teeth lovingly placed nearby in a glass) take time to visit your local library because it is awesome!

Happy reading!

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