The 1888-91 Whitechapel murders in London are arguably the world's most infamous unsolved serial crimes. The brutal murders of as few as five to almost a dozen young women attributed to "Jack the Ripper" have spawned thousands of nonfiction accounts and casebooks, so many that the term "ripperology" was coined to describe the study of the murders by professionals and amateurs. Fictional accounts of the Ripper murders also abound, including tales that pit Jack the Ripper against Sherlock Holmes and, most recently, Isabel Allende's novel "Ripper," which involves teenage sleuths who use computer gaming to track a modern-day Ripper terrorizing San Francisco.
Rather than another trip along the well-trod Ripper path, English horror and fantasy writer Sarah Pinborough breaks new ground in "Mayhem," her 12th novel, by exploring several murders that occurred contemporaneously with the Ripper crimes. Although many of these cases were initially thought to be the work of Jack the Ripper, they eventually were pegged on the Thames Torso Murderer, who earned the sobriquet for his penchant for beheading his victims and then dumping their dismembered torsos and limbs into the Thames.
Pinborough spares readers none of the gory details, interspersing graphic scenes of the killer's torture of his female victims in France and England with actual newspaper accounts of the discovery of their remains. Although the news stories and a letter signed by Jack the Ripper, interspersed throughout the novel, lend authenticity to and place the murders in context, "Mayhem's" greater achievement is in its deft portrayal of the divergent social classes in Victorian London that gave rise to the Thames Torso Killer and the men who hunted him.
Central to the action is Dr. Thomas Bond, the real-life police surgeon who investigated both the Whitechapel and Thames Torso murders. Bond is more fallible Dr. Watson than omniscient Holmes (tellingly, his is the only first-person narrative in the novel), and he is all too human, suffering from anxiety and insomnia exacerbated by the horrific crime scenes and bodies he examines. Bond's insomnia has led him to use laudanum and opium, the latter of which he obtains in Whitechapel's many opium dens. In one such place, he briefly spies an arresting figure, imposing despite being crippled in one arm. The man seems to be a priest, hunting for someone among the addicts. Could it be the Thames Killer, looking for his next victim, or someone seeking the same killer as the police?
Bond's quest for opium and the mysterious priest takes its toll on his health and psyche and draws concern from his police colleagues, among them Inspector Frederick Moore, another figure from the real investigation. Moore brings a biting sociological perspective to the novel, as when he thinks about how London is really two cities, "one that belonged to those who dressed for the opera, and one that was a mere survival pit for those who sold matches outside the Opera House." He recognizes in Bond a fellow trawler through the muck of human suffering that separates them from these upper classes.
But Bond gets some relief from the muck through his association with Dr. Charles Hebbert, another police surgeon, and his solidly middle-class family. The Hebberts prove essential as the middle-age bachelor's only point of contact with normality. Bond is particularly drawn to Hebbert's vivacious and beautiful daughter, Juliana. Before the romantically inclined reader can hope for something more, a fiancé, James Harrington, comes on the scene. But the young man has his own troubles, grieving over the recent deaths of his parents and assumption of the family business.
Possibilities of romantic entanglement are overshadowed by much darker forces: flashbacks to the frightening childhood memories of Polish immigrant Aaron Kosminski (whose connection to the murders is not immediately clear) and Dr. Hebbert, whose dreams of blood inevitably include his daughter, and who fears the outside world: "It's as if everything wicked is looking into my house. Into me." Is Hebbert, with his knowledge of anatomy, the perpetrator of such heinous crimes? Have Kosminski's childhood visions turned to bloody reality? Or is it something more sinister, as the priest warns, "an ancient wickedness"?
To say more would spoil the twists Pinborough has devised for this horrific tale, which eventually brings together Bond, Kosminski and the priest in their common quest to rid London of the monstrous killer. A book not easily read at night, "Mayhem" should come with a warning label for its graphic violence against women, confusing flashbacks and final chapters that drag out the ultimate confrontation. Yet when Bond takes his leave of his fellow crime fighters with the words, "and after this…I never want to see either of you again," you suspect what he and author Pinborough really mean is, "I'll be back."
Woods has written four mysteries in the Charlotte Justice series and has edited several anthologies.
Quercus: 400 pp., $24.95