The story behind Murder by Sarah Pinborough

Although it probably works as a stand-alone, Murder is the second installment of a story told over two books. In the first (Mayhem) my main character, Dr Thomas Bond, a Police Surgeon, is involved in both the Jack the Ripper case and the lesser known Thames Torso murders. During the latter, he is drawn into a seedy underworld of drugs, secrets and the possibility of the supernatural.

Murder deals mainly with what happens after the fury of these events is over, and the potentially supernatural aftermath. The thames Torso murders and Jack the Ripper still feature, but in a lesser way. This is a much more claustrophobic and creepy book than Mayhem was, and the central murders are personal rather than victims of a serial killer. However, I still wanted – given that so many of my characters are real people – to follow the framework of the previous book and give the story a skeleton of real crimes that interweave with their fictional surroundings. With the Thames Torso killings there were several books and websites that dealt with them because they took place in the same time frame as Jack the Ripper, but I was now writing in a period several years on, and I had no series of crimes readily at my fingertips.

I headed to the Times archives (trust me, you can get lost in there; it's a bottomless well of interesting news stories and insights into the past), I searched the date range I needed my crimes to occur in, added the keywords 'murder' and 'death' and then trawled. I then added my characters' names into the search and it was wonderful to see them mentioned in reports on various cases. When you take real people and turn them into fiction, the writer-ego makes you forget that they once existed entirely in their own right. But of course they did. I found that Thomas Bond had been part of the investigation into the death of a woman called Elizabeth Camp, murdered on a train, her head bashed in with a pestle later found on the tracks, and I wove that into my planning. I found that Henry Moore had investigated the mysterious death of a foreign priest and that went in too. I love being able to include the original news articles in the books and know that they not only serve history but also my story. It's like piecing a puzzle together.

The river is almost a character of its own in both books (in several of my books actually – I appear to have a fascination with the Thames) and I needed some crimes to include that involved the water. It was only then that I came across the 'baby-farmers' of the nineteenth century. We focus often on men as serial killers, but these women were chillingly efficient at despatching children to their graves. Motivated by money rather than any urge to kill we usually associate with terrible crimes, they would place adverts in newspapers saying that, for a fee, they could arrange well-to-do homes for anyone struggling to look after their newborn infants or young children. Often, these adverts were answered by unmarried young women who did not have the time to work and raise their child, and wished for a better life for them. They would scrape together whatever price the baby-farmer demanded for their service and hand it over with their child. Many of these children did not live much longer after that. They were murdered and their young bodies thrown into the river.

The most famous, or indeed, infamous, of these baby-farmers was Amelia Dyer. She became known as the Reading baby-farmer, and by the time she was caught and hanged she was suspected of causing the deaths of up to four hundred infants. Horrific as these crimes are, the novelist in me wanted to use them as my backdrop case. Not only did they involve the river, but in many ways, they were a reflection of the difficulties so many in society faced – and the lengths some would go to in order to earn a decent living. Also, in a character cast that is quite male heavy, these crimes – both the victims and the perpetrators – are very female-centric and I liked that.

So there in lies the story within my story. Murder is, at its heart, a story about paranoia and madness. But I hope you also enjoy the history within it, even if it is a little gruesome!

Sarah Pinborough
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