Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Alex Grecian writes a wonderfully dreary Victorian thriller.

After reading one Victorian-like blockbuster, I decided to read another, but this one couldn’t be more different from D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day.


The Yard

The Yard (436 pages, Putnam, $26.95) is Alex Grecian’s novel recounting the early days of the Scotland Yard.  Just after the grizzly failure of the police to find Jack the Ripper, London is both angry with the police and ready to blame them for a lot of its woes.

Into this demoralized Scotland Yard, Grecian introduces three key characters.  The first is Walter Day, a young detective who has risen quickly in the ranks and finds himself running a case in which a policeman was dismembered and left in a trunk in the train station.  Day and his colleagues are baffled by the crime, and it does not help that several other detectives refuse to trust this young man and do things to make it harder for him to accomplish anything.

He does have a couple of supporters, though, and one is a rough and ready young constable called Hammersmith, who worked as a boy in coal mines in the north and has come to London to right wrongs, especially for children, when he can.  Another help to Day for fighting crime is a local doctor, Kingsley, who deplores older medical techniques and tries to introduce new ideas, like looking at fingerprints, into the detectives’ arsenal.

Dr. Kingsley is a wonderful character, and his morgue/autopsy room, with its utter disregard of issues like cleanliness and contamination—one has to shudder as the constable shaves with a razor that had been used to slit someone’s throat—offers a beacon of hope to the detectives who are dealing with far too many murders for their tiny “Murder Squad” to be able to handle.

This is not a mystery, really, because Grecian makes the murderer one of the many characters.  Instead, he offers a portrait of this psychopath and makes him even more threatening because of his maniacal need to keep his obsessions secret.

Grecian brings out vividly the life of the streets, and he does a lot to portray the true misery of nineteenth-century life.  This is not a novel for the faint of heart, but it is a rewarding tale and one that raises the hope that these characters might come together again in a similar seedy challenge to the sanity of London life.

The narrative is well-paced, and the characters are richly drawn.  The novelist struggles a bit at first to find his voice, but once he does, this novel is hard to put down.  This is Grecian's debut attempt at a novel: I hope we can anticipate many more!

Alex Grecian

The Yard is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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