A debut novel, this was an enjoyable police procedural set in post-Ripper Victorian London. I appreciate that the author decided to set a detective novel – and one involving a serial murderer – in Victorian London, but made it only tangentially connected to the Jack the Ripper case. While I enjoy Ripper-related stories as much as the next Victorian crime fan, it’s a story that’s mostly been done to death. Jack wasn’t the only killer in London in the early 1890s, and it’s about time we read about some of the others.
Some minor plot spoilers follow, but I will absolutely NOT ruin the mystery for you.
The tale begins with the shocking murder of one of Scotland Yard’s detectives, who has been inexplicably stabbed to death and stuffed in a steamer trunk at a train station. While Scotland Yard has created a new murder squad of detectives dedicated to solving London’s homicides in the wake of the unsolved Jack the Ripper killings, ordinary citizens have mostly lost confidence in the police. And now one of their own has been killed.
We have three protagonists: Inspector Day, a newly-wed, inexperienced detective who has just joined Scotland Yard; Constable Hammersmith, a stalwart policeman who managed to escape from a childhood of desperate poverty; and Dr. Kingsley, a caring but absent-minded widower with a great personal interest in criminal forensics. They begin the novel working to solve one murder and end up investigating a series of killings, some only tangentially related to the rest.
THE YARD moves quickly and is engaging. The protagonists are well-developed (we even see some interesting tidbits from their pasts in flashback chapters) and the secondary characters interesting, quirky, and memorable. The novel’s plot hangs together coherently, an absolute must for a police procedural. Its also relatively complex, with lots of moving parts, but at no point does the plot become confusing for the reader. The criminology used to solve the murders, true to form, is rather crude and relies on lots of legwork and a bit of luck. It’s a very well put together story and I look forward to more from the author.
This is not to say that the work is entirely without blemishes. This is one of those police procedurals that provides the identity of the murderer early on, and includes periodic interludes from this individual’s perspective. If you don’t mind those, then this won’t be a problem, but I prefer for the villain’s identity and motives to be left uncertain for as long as possible. One of the protagonists, Kingsley, is a physician who is interested in the cutting-edge use of fingerprints to solve crimes. While it’s an interesting element, and shows his progressive outlook, as it turns out, the fingerprinting aspect of the case is almost entirely superfluous. As such, I’d have rather had it excluded. The main sub-plot – somehow related to a dead boy stuck in a chimney, an unpleasant physician and his wife, and two prostitutes who always seem to be lurking about – remains mostly opaque and unsatisfying. Either more should have been done with this sub-plot or it should have been left out entirely. And, I must admit, the crimes are wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly in the climax; this produces a finale that wraps everything up thoroughly, but in a slightly unsatisfying way. I’d have liked to see that complicated a bit. I don’t want to focus too much on these issues, as none prevent the novel from being thoroughly enjoyable. I am really just quibbling with a few of the author’s choices.
THE YARD is highly recommended to those who like period crime fiction. It’s well done, and a strong debut novel. It seems clear that there will be a sequel, and I suspect that Alex Grecian’s second effort will be even stronger. The cast of characters he has assembled have a lot of potential for additional stories, and the setting is ripe for further exploration. I’m looking forward to it.
Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers