British author Sarah Pinborough is an elusive target. Seek out her novels at your local bookseller and you’ll find yourself wandering the stacks trying to pin her down. If you’ve only read the first hundred pages of A Matter of Blood, the first book in her Forgotten Gods Trilogy, you’d likely be surprised to find it sorted among the science fiction and fantasy books rather than the mysteries and crime thrillers. Poison, Charm, and Beauty, her sexy and provocative fairy tale updates could be sitting under romance or maybe fantasy. You won’t know until you look. Mayhem and Murder, fictionalized adaptations of the very real late Victorian Thames Torso Murders, are more reliably found in the mystery section, but could be stacked in true crime or fantasy without causing readers any cognitive dissonance.
Sure, her works would be more easily purchased if they were collected in the general fiction aisles among such other genre jumpers as Margaret Atwood and Stephen King, but American readers haven’t caught on to her talent, yet, and so her books are still scattered in the genre suburbs surrounding the more mainstream skyscrapers. It’s a shame her imaginative journeys’ refusal to haunt a single category makes discovering them more difficult. The extra search effort is paid off with some of the more daring and tightly written stories coming out today.
Few Americans even know that Pinborough is a name worth tracing the spines on the shelves for. So until we take more notice we’ll continue to get her books months to years after their release in the UK, often straight to paperback, if we’re lucky enough to get them at all. Fans of her work need to hunt down her books within a few months of their release or they might not find them there no matter which section they are looking in (of course, there’s always Amazon, but somebody has got to keep these book stores alive).
This may change as each new release inspires new high profile praise, such as Stephen King’s enthusiastic endorsement of The Death House which arrives in paperback on September 1st. And if you trust the taste of her fans such as Mr. King and Neil Gaiman, you don’t need to wait two weeks to pick up her latest (though you may as well go ahead and pre-order it) when you can dig into the best of her back catalog right now.
Where to start is up to you. I was first bit by her Forgotten Gods Trilogy: A Matter of Blood, The Shadow of the Soul, and The Chosen Seed. An expert concoction of multiple genres, this series exists in an easily imagined near future where the world economy never quite recovers from the banking crises of 2008. It opens with police detective Cass Jones managing two big cases – a serial murderer eager to get more immediate attention for his crimes and a gangland hit gone horribly wrong. Very quickly a third murder strikes right at the heart of Cass’s family and Cass soon finds himself implicated. There is no obvious connection between any of these cases, but book logic tells us that given the attention each case receives, some sort of unification must be in store. This expectation can in no way prepare you for how brilliantly these lines come together or how each case can be so satisfyingly resolved yet create so many questions that the conclusion of that first book cannot be the conclusion of the greater story.
Now don’t think this series is straight crime fiction. It’s called the Forgotten Gods Trilogy for a reason. The supernatural is woven deeply through these books, though at first only a few frayed threads are exposed. There are greater forces at work in this world than mere human ambition and petty greed. We are exposed to these forces as Cass is exposed to them until this shadow world is as evident as our visible world, regardless of how ready Cass Jones is to accept it. Ultimately, Cass must confront the supernatural current shaping his world and decide what his place will be within this new understanding.
For more crime fiction but now set in the historical landscape of 1888 London, check out the duology of Mayhem and Murder. These books follow police surgeon Thomas Bond, whose job has him examining the remains left behind by the Thames Torso Murderer. Dr. Bond was a real person and, sadly, so too was the Thames Torso Murderer, though his real identity was never discovered. The torso murders were taking place concurrently with Jack the Ripper’s killings. Despite the torso murders’ equally calculated gruesomeness, they did not persist in the public imagination the way the Ripper’s crimes have.
Pinborough seizes these neglected horrors and recreates for us a world of fear and exhaustion. She holds hard to the known facts, even interpolating actual newspaper clips verbatim into her pages, but takes advantage of the unknowns to tell her own original macabre tale as Dr. Bond looks deep into these murders and learns that those closest to him may also be at risk. Jack the Ripper’s crimes make their cameos, as they must, but the torso murders stay the focus, and the two books Sarah Pinborough creates out of them are riveting.
Now comes a hard swing to something lighter. In her retelling of three classic fairy tales, Pinborough is happy to be naughty, but she can’t help being thoughtful. Show Snow White having sex or her wicked step-mother performing fellatio on her husband the king, and of course that’s going to get all the attention, but more stunning is her exploration of the evil queen’s own history and motivations that make her damn near sympathetic, and her willingness to question how charming would we really expect a prince to be if he could fall in love with a woman he has only ever known as a comatose patient in a crystal casket. We find this and more in only the first slim volume of the Snow White story, Poison. She has more to upturn in her Cinderella story, Charm, and her take on Sleeping Beauty, Beauty.
These are the highlights of what a budding fan of Sarah Pinborough can find in the States. The straight horror novels she first built her reputation on have never found a US publisher, and, surprisingly, neither has her widely acclaimed novella, The Language of Dying. But don’t worry, if you get the fever you can find these books from third party sellers Amazon is happy to connect you to. Personally, I’ve picked up many a Pinborough book from The Book Depository and enjoyed their free international shipping.
On many an author binge I’ve been happy to consume various stories that clustered around a single milieu or general vibe. Yet there’s something wonderful about following an author unafraid to abandon the benefits of genre branding and always tell the story that they are burning to tell today. Sarah Pinborough can’t promise you what kind of story she’s going to share next, but you can bet it will be packed tight with ideas and you can bet it will have some darkness lurking in the heart of it. And you can bet it will be worth reading. So far I’ve enjoyed every spin of the wheel.