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Onyx reviews: Murder by Sarah Pinborough
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/06/2014
Many writers have tackled the Jack the Ripper story and, no doubt,
others will do so in the future, but Sarah Pinborough is staking out her own,
unique claim to the story of heinous atrocities committed in late 18th century
London. First there was Mayhem and now there is Murder—most
foul, one is tempted to add. Modern readers are somewhat inured to violent
crime, so it bears remembering the level to which murders of the Ripper's ilk
traumatized London, something Pinborough does a fine job of depicting.
Murder is driven by a love triangle with Juliana Harrington at its
center. As related in Mayhem, her husband James was the Thames Torso
Murderer (a real, uncaught killer who plied his trade concurrently with Jack the
Ripper), although this is a secret carefully guarded by Dr. Thomas Bond (who is
based on a real police surgeon who was an early practitioner of profiling and
who was involved with the Ripper case), who found an unorthodox method of
bringing an end to Harrington's reign of terror. Bond wonders if Harrington
might also have been Jack the Ripper, but he will learn things on this front
that point at another perpetrator.
Bond has become close to Juliana in the years since her husband's body was
found in the Thames. Though he is considerably older than she is, he believes
that once she is past her period of mourning, she will come to see her devoted
friend as something more. Bond bides his time, waiting for the perfect
opportunity to propose. The biggest obstacle is Harrington's son. Bond has
little use for children and has a difficult time getting close to the boy, who
Bond suspects may be tainted by his father's defective genes.
The third arm of the triangle is Edward Kane, an American businessman and
former friend of James Harrington. Kane is nearer to Juliana's age and they
quickly become close, much to Bond's consternation. Kane supports Juliana's
independence, his overtures are supported by her father, and he also gets along
well with the boy. It seems like an ideal match in almost everyone's eyes.
Kane knows nothing of Harrington's involvement in the murders, but is in
possession of a number of disturbing letters from his old friend that he only
recently received. They indicate that Harrington was suffering from mental
anguish. Kane gives the letters to Bond for his opinion. These long, detailed
and occasionally rambling missives, some of which are reproduced in the text,
are a convenient device to convey information to readers, although even
Harrington begins to wonder why he continues to write them despite any evidence
they are being received.
Bond believes that the real perpetrator behind the savage murders of women
and, later, children, is a creature called a Upir, an eastern European monster
that is a kind of emotional vampire that clings to its subject's back, insisting
that the victim perform increasingly terrible acts of violence to satisfy its
insatiable hunger. The Upir is more or less invisible to others; however, close
proximity to a person saddled with this monster can cause illness and
nightmares. There is a strange affinity between the Upir and the Thames, a river
that forms one of London's central arteries.
Pinborough keeps the supernatural elements ambiguous. The Upir may in fact be
a figment of the carrier's imagination. It can also be seen as a metaphor: Many
of those afflicted with the Upir are also heavy drug users. Laudanum was used
routinely in those days, and opium dens were readily available to people of all
social strata. The concept of the Upir as "the monkey on the back" of
addiction is evident in Murder. Bond likens it to a parasitic infection
that might eventually be overcome, but it appears that the only way to be rid of
the Upir is to pass it on to another unwitting victim. Supporting the
possibility that drug-induced frenzies are behind the murders is Pinborough's
reference to Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a
book about a man (a doctor, no less) who ingests a strange liquid and becomes
another person: a fiendish murderer. Bond refuses to believe that he is insane:
he would rather believe that he is being driven by a supernatural entity over
which he has no control. Pinborough seems to imply that violent tendencies
toward women may be a part of many men's nature, that men choose not to act upon
them through strength of character and willpower.
Murder is told from various points of view. Bond's increasingly
deranged thoughts and acts are narrated in first person, whereas Kane's parts in
the tale are third person. Newspaper articles and letters are used to bolster
the story. The intimate view into Bond's descent into madness encourage readers
to sympathize with him, even as he commits atrocities. Like Dexter Morgan, he
believes that he can put his homicidal tendencies to good use by killing only
the dregs of society, but his self-justifications grow less and less credible.
Can Murder be read without having read its precursor?
Most definitely. While readers will probably intuit that there was a previous
book, Murder stands firmly on its own. The incidents of the first book
that are germane to this one are summarized through narrative and dialog, and
yet an interested reader could still go back and enjoy Mayhem after
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