London 1889. Jack the Ripper hasn’t murdered for a while but his identity is still a mystery and the city’s residents have lost faith in the police. Scotland Yard is trapped in old-fashioned police protocols but a new Commissioner just back from India, a new Inspector in Murder just promoted up from Devon and a newly-discovered dismembered body in a trunk at Euston Square Station are about to change that.
Alex Grecian’s Victorian police procedural introduces a terrific pair of sleuths—Inspector Walter Day and Constable Hammersmith are a little uncertain they will manage the overwhelming case loads and win the trust of their fellow officers. But both are unafraid to operate out of integrity and neither has the good sense to go home when a gruesome case remains tantalizingly unsolved. They have plenty of work.
The body is a fellow murder detective and what has been done to him is sickening and inexplicable. The story is larded with gory detail—a major character is the self-appointed medical examiner, a doctor with a jones for the newly emerging discipline of forensic science. He’s a keeper–very colorful and intrepid man with a strong backstory and an even stronger appeal in the middle of a homicide investigation. No dull characters in this novel—chimney sweeps to frenzied, bloodthirsty maniacs are feisty, lurid, eccentric, certifiably mad, unaccountably sane, courtly, deadly and every iteration of unexpected human being. Grecian’s characterization skills are cinematic.
The plots–and there are several that intersect, veer off and unspool into a bizarre tangle in the end–are logical and terrible. London is grubby, smelly, murderous, streaked in blood, gore and horse manure. Threats abound and none are idle. The cops are so inundated with crimes they can never catch up and big clues fall between the cracks as they land on the wrong desk—or in the trash can.
But the new team is good at seeing connections and unafraid to consider patterns of criminal behavior that haven’t been part of a detective’s arsenal before. There’s a great introduction to the questionable idea of finger printing and a willingness to examine psychological profiling as London seems in the grip of multiple serial killers. Kid victims, cop victims, lady victims and sadistic killers are tucked behind every door and most of the doors are closed–but not for long.
The Yard is gritty, sort of disgusting, convincing and gripping. I liked the characters at least as much as the plot. I would pick up a sequel to Grecian’s debut novel—and I suspect, from the way this one leaves off, Inspector Day and his tough, humane sidekick Hammersmith will be back in trouble and in print soon enough.
The Yard Alex Grecian | Putnam 2012