Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


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 reading Murder.

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2014. All rights reserved.