Interestingly enough, well before this book came into my life, I'd happened to be browsing through the many publishing-related newsletters in my email inbox one day when a deliciously creepy animated gif banner in one of them caught my eye. In fact, it was an announcement for this very title, bearing the tag line:
"Jack the Ripper is terrorizing London. Now a new killer is stalking the streets, the victims' bodies are dismembered and their heads are missing...the killer likes to keep them."
It gets even more intriguing than that. The book's blurb also describes it as a supernatural thriller, and given my penchant for historical horror novels (particularly those featuring a paranormal angle) I just couldn't resist. So you can imagine my excitement when I received Mayhem for review from Jo Fletcher Books, and remembering that banner with its promise of a hunt for a serial killer in Victorian London, I needed little convincing to start this right away.
Still, Mayhem isn't really a story about Jack the Ripper. Between 1888 and 1891 there were a series of murders in or around the Whitechapel area, and the modus operandi of some of these were different enough that investigators theorized that they could have been committed by another person other than Jack. The idea of a separate "Torso Killer" in these "Thames Mysteries" is what forms the basis for this book, and in Sarah Pinborough's version of the events, he takes his victims' heads as trophies.
Though Jack the Ripper doesn't take center stage in Mayhem, his name and his crimes are referred to frequently, and his terrifying hold over East London is part and parcel to the creation of the setting. Establishing that there's the possibility of not just one but two killers stalking the streets creates this sense of dread that is pervasive throughout the novel. Because of the way the plot is set up, even when nothing suspenseful was happening on the page, the book always had me steeling myself in apprehension for something horrible to come along -- that's what a good horror novel does to me.
The supernatural aspect also helps in this regard; as I've said before in my past reviews, I like a touch of that in my horror. In Mayhem, it adds a whole new dimension to the story, making it a lot better than if this had been just a straight-up hunt for an ordinary mundane killer.
In spite of this, much in this book is rooted in reality. The author did her research, and even included events like the true instance of a reporter's dog used in finding a severed leg during the Whitehall Mystery. Also, a couple of the book's chief characters, like those involved with the investigations, were actual historical figures -- the police detective Henry Moore and the British physician Thomas Bond, for example. The latter comes closest to being our main protagonist, with his chapters being the only ones written in the first person, while the others are in the third person. Initially, I found this point-of-view switching to be quite bizarre, but ultimately it worked for me.
Reports from news articles about the killings are also interspersed between the narratives, which not only establishes the timeline but also provides historical context. A work of fiction this may be, but the book never lets you forget that the Whitechapel murders, their victims and their grisly circumstances (especially in the case of Mary Jane Kelly) had really occurred, that at least one insane and very real killer had actually once terrorized London's East End, and I think that's what unsettled me the most as I was reading.
This was a very dark tale, chilling and disturbing without being overblown or excessive. The atmosphere of tension is subtle and builds gradually, but things peaked for me during that terrible scene at the dinner table involving Dr. Bond's revelation. I didn't realize until then that I was just like him -- bracing myself for the inevitable macabre conclusion. This is highly recommended for those who like historical mysteries and crime fiction, particularly if you don't mind a little paranormal thrown into the mix.
Note: I received a review copy of this book compliments of the publisher, in exchange for my honest opinions. My thanks to Jo Fletcher Books!