It’s a Mystery: “There’s no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself”
By M.A. Lawson
Penguin/Blue Rider, 2014
By Sarah Pinborough
Quercus/Jo Fletcher, 2014
Add Kay Hamilton, DEA agent extraordinaire, to my roster of tough, wise-cracking, bad-ass irresistible beauties. She’s the newest creation from Mike Lawson, author of the marvelous Joe DeMarco series. As Rosarito Beach begins, Kay, having recently been transferred to San Diego after bringing down a drug kingpin in Miami, an episode which brought her more grief than glory, once again finds herself entangled in a major international bust.
The key is Tito Olivera, the younger brother of and U.S. distributor for Mexican drug czar Caesar Olivera. She is convinced if she takes him down, Caesar will follow, and when Caesar falls, so does his empire, the most powerful drug cartel in Mexico. First, she gets Tito’s girlfriend Maria to bug his house by blackmailing her with her status as an illegal immigrant and her brother’s fledgling narcotics activities. This yields information about a meeting in a bar between Tito and another major player, Cadillac Washington. The DEA wants Washington and so does Caesar, who orders Tito to buy him out—hence the meeting. Kay gets an Assistant U.S. Attorney named Carol Maddox to help her obtain a warrant to videotape the meeting. As Maddox tells the judge:
If Tito Olivera gives money to Cadillac Washington it raises issues related to where the money came from and may allow us to get Tito for income tax evasion. But what we’re also hoping is that Olivera and Washington will make statements when they meet tying them to past murders and transactions.
Kay gets the warrant but she has her own agenda. It’s her modus operandi and her flaw:
…The truth was, Kay had lied to her boss, Maddox, and now a federal judge about what she really expected to happen when Tito met with Cadillac Washington. Well, it wasn’t exactly a lie, it was more a sin of omission. She didn’t tell them what Maria had told her: that Tito might kill Cadillac.
Fuck income tax evasion.
Washington gets killed and Tito gets jailed. But instead of congrats, Kay gets a tongue-lashing from her boss, Jim Davis. He suspects she knew what the scenario would be. When confronted, she doesn’t admit it but she doesn’t deny it. As Davis says:
Hamilton, I don’t know what to do with you. You just suck with people…you piss off the guys who work for you, the guys who ought to be loyal to you…. They don’t like you because you don’t trust them and you don’t include them when you’re planning something…you refuse to recognize that they have wives and kids and can’t work twenty-four hours a day. They don’t like you because you’re a constant hard-ass and never cut them any slack when they don’t measure up to your standards.
Actually, all Kay cares about is that the operation succeeded. Now, she’s got to concentrate on keeping Tito in jail until his trial. After all, Caesar’s got billions, long corrupt arms and a lot of influence in high places. She knows she’s got to stay focused and vigilant.
What she doesn’t reckon with is any personal vulnerability. It shows up on her doorstep in the form of Jessica, a fifteen-year-old with uncomfortably familiar mannerisms. Turns out she’s the daughter Kay gave up for adoption at birth. Jessica’s adoptive parents are dead. She’s got no one else to turn to. Suddenly, Kay’s carefully laid professional plans go into a tailspin. The Olivera case becomes a dangerous family affair—her family. Caesar is on the warpath and will stop at nothing to get his brother out of jail. This, of course, puts Jessica in jeopardy. Kay is faced with an excruciating set of choices and any one of them could prove fatal.
Kay steps up her manhunt to a killer pace. In an act of what might be called calculated desperation, she orchestrates Tito’s release. Kay is the hunter, Tito is the bait, Caesar is the game. As all hell breaks loose, Kay infiltrates Caesar’s palatial lair. How? Cunningly and with great flair (to reveal more would be criminal). In the midst of all the danger, Jessica shows she is her mother’s daughter. Kay gets a surprising ally and more than she bargained for. Everything comes together in a full and vicious circle.
Rosarito Beach is an intense, action-packed, edge-of-the-seat thriller. Lawson turns a sharp and penetrating eye on the front lines of the war on drugs. Kay Hamilton is an original, provocative protagonist with great panache. Kudos to this innovative, thoroughly enjoyable launch of what promises to be a grand new series.
It’s not as much of a stretch as you might think from the contemporary drug scene in Rosarito Beach to the Victorian London of Mayhem. Evil has no time frame and drugs, albeit the 19th century variety, were as prevalent then as now. It’s worth noting that Sherlock Holmes, whose name is synonymous with the gaslight era, was addicted to cocaine. The Great Detective was introduced in A Study in Scarlet in 1887, where he explained away his habit as “a protest against the monotony of existence.”
When Mayhem opens it is 1888. Jack the Ripper’s red reign is in full throttle—but “Saucy Jack,” as he was often perversely called, is not the centerpiece here. Mayhem revolves around another real life serial killer who overlapped with Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel killings in 1888-89. He was dubbed the Thames Torso Killer because his female victims were dismembered, packed into neat parcels and dumped in the Thames minus their heads.
The protagonist and narrator of Mayhem is Dr. Thomas Bond, a historical figure who assisted the police with both sets of killings. Bond is an eminent police surgeon and insomniac who uses opium as a release from his grisly job. Part of that job is helping the detectives of Scotland Yard track down Jack, but as he works on the limbs of the women from the Thames, he realizes that he is looking for a completely different murderer. He senses that there is “something…other,” something still more chilling than the Ripper killings, in the severed body parts he has examined.
Heartsick and weary as the body count mounts—“The city’s the color of Claret this year”—Bond takes ever more solace in London’s opium dens. There he encounters a mysterious stranger with a withered arm. Whatever the weather, he is always clad in a long black coat that seems more armor than cloak. Bond is certain he has seen him before and that he is somehow a key to the murders. After several more “sightings” he connects him to the scene of a previous crime. Even more bizarre, he glimpses a heavy gold cross underneath the man’s coat:
Was this why he always wore a heavy overcoat, to disguise his true calling? But why? …why would any man hide his love of God, if he had taken such vows?
Stealthily pursuing the man’s movements from den to den, he manages to follow him to a decrepit tenement building:
…I reached the doorway unseen…but before my glove had even made contact the door was pulled open…. I found myself face to face with my mysterious stranger. His eyes were dark pits of glowing coal as he stared down at me.
“For a moment, Dr. Bond, I thought you might be going to the wrong rooms. That could be a dire mistake in Bluegate Fields.”
…”You knew I was following you?”
He shrugged before silently stepping aside to let me in. …”Most men are predictable.”
They sit and study each other. Bond feels himself pulled towards this priest as though under a spell:
…Eventually, I said, ”Others, they feel this Jack the Ripper to be the most terrifying murderer on London’s streets this year, but not I…. I am a man of reason, of science…And yet I am gripped by a fear that steals my sleep…. If I could only find a clue, anything that might help the police to find him…”
…”Your police cannot find this killer. …And you should not want to…. This Jack they seek…he is simply an effect….the thing I seek brings mayhem and wickedness in its wake…The creature I seek, the thing the people of the eastern lands call the Upir…it hides for years, decades even, sinking to the bottom of the river…until it is hungry once again…. I have tracked it across Europe…and now I am here, where it has chosen to stop, in the birth city of its host…. It is attached to a man, of course.”
Now Bond thinks he is in conversation with a lunatic but before he can leave the priest has a last word of warning:
“It’ll be behind the man,” he said. “Somewhere between him and his shadow—somewhere he can almost see, but not quite. And it will drive him mad. I guarantee you that.”
Thus, what begins as a fairly conventional crime thriller evolves quickly into one with a plethora of supernatural elements. Sarah Pinborough shapes it masterfully. Almost from the outset, one realizes there is more here than meets the eye. That’s the Upir and once Bond accepts the possibility of its existence, the narrative explodes dramatically.
Mayhem is a beautifully rendered exploration of madness in all its forms. The author takes sleight of hand to new heights. She makes the mean streets of Victorian London all too real. It’s a demanding, moody horror story with a shocking twist.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.