“Breath through your mouth, Mr Day. The odor isn’t pleasant.”
Day nodded, panting heavily.
“I suppose it is Mr Little. But what have they done to him?”
You can see what’s been done. The question is why has it been done?”
“I’m afraid it’s all too human.”
I am not a fan of the “Columbo” method of mystery writing. While it worked well on-screen for Peter Falk, as far as I’m concerned, if you let the reader know the identity of the villain at the top of the story, it’s no longer a mystery, but rather a thriller. I much prefer a mystery where the reader is given as much chance as possible to discover the culprit before the author gives us the big reveal. Even Sherlock Holmes, who almost invariably had things solved well before the end of the story, let the reader follow along without knowing until the last second–whodunit? So, I expected to be much disappointed with Alex Grecian’s The Yard, a novel where the identity of the culprit is known within the first few chapters. However, extenuating circumstances turned what could have been a straight out thriller into a nicely rounded mystery.
First, let us set the scene. The year is 1889, and it’s been a year since Saucy Jack, a.k.a. Jack the Ripper has haunted the streets of Whitechapel, carving up prostitutes and taunting the good detectives of Scotland Yard to stop his reign of mayhem. Detective Inspector Walter Day is on his first week of service with the Yard, and catches his first case—the murder of a fellow detective, stabbed and left in a trunk on the platform of one of London’s busiest transit stations. It’s a situation that’s doubly uncomfortable for the newly minted detective, feeling the pressure to both impress his fellow detectives and to solve the murder of one of Scotland Yard’s own. Thrust into a situation that would test the mettle of even a seasoned detective, Day follows the forensics, with the help of Dr. Bernard Kingsley, coroner and advocate of this new field of scientific inquiry. Has Saucy Jack returned? Or is there a new madman haunting the streets of London? Day and Kingsley resolve to find out before the killer strikes again.
Intertwined with Day’s story is that of Constable Neville Hammersmith, obsessed with his own inquiry into the death of a chimney sweep’s assistant, a five year old boy left to die trapped in a flue when he becomes stuck. Hammersmith is met with derision by the detective assigned to the case, who would rather chalk the enquiry up to “death by misadventure” rather than pursue the chimneysweep who left one of London’s child labourers to die alone in the dark. Hammersmith refuses to let the matter go, spurred by his own experiences as a child in the coal mines of Wales and his desire to punish those that would use a child as a tool to be thrown away when broken. When his own inquiry involves the prominent doctor whose house the dead child was discovered in, a series of events is unleashed that eventually involves Hammersmith in the lives of Day and Inspector Michael Blacker, their work on the murder of Inspector Christian Little, and a third set of murders that Blacker is convinced Little was close to solving when he met his end.
The Yard is split into several narratives, written from the point of view of the various detectives, constable Hammersmith, Doctor Kingsley, and, interspersed throughout the story, the murderer, allowing us as readers some insight into the killer’s motivations. However, very early on the identity of the murderer is revealed to the reader—we’ll call that the “Columbo Effect”—something that usually ruins the mystery for me as a reader. I like a mystery to be a mystery, and once you know who the murderer is, as I said earlier—that’s a thriller. Grecian manages to save the mystery aspect by very deftly intertwining a series of actual mysteries into the narrative, and providing motivation for the villain’s crime from his/her point of view. It’s very much the Columbo method/effect, but the author manages to make it work.
The Yard is also an intriguing study of the birth of forensics, in the form of Doctor Kingsley. A medical examiner on retainer to Scotland Yard, he’s obsessed with forensic science and pathology, specifically a new method of identification involving the use of an individual’s fingerprints. He’s also clearly modeled on Dr. Joseph Bell, or possibly the less known Henry Littlejohn, the former being the template used by Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle when he created Sherlock Holmes. Back to Kingsley—he’s also a pioneer in the field of forensic pathology, and when the reader first meets him, he’s elbow deep in an autopsy, with his daughter (and assistant) drawing diagrams of the procedure for future reference.
Alex Grecian also gives a patina of authenticity to this Victorian mystery with the inclusion of many subtle examples of life in Victorian England. Hammersmith and his roommate, constable Colin Pringle, share a room due to their relative poverty and ration both food and second hand tea (infused with copper to give some semblance of taste) simply to get by. The author also gives insight into the use of child labour at the time, whether it be as chimney sweep assistants or working in the mines, and demonstrates the obvious lack of social services for the poor or mentally ill. The climax of the novel takes place round and about one of the many workhouses that dotted London at the time, and provides a look at the squalid conditions of life in Victorian London, juxtaposed with the relative opulence of life amongst the upper crust of society. Even the murder squad at Scotland Yard is shockingly deficient. Composed of a small unit within the metropolitan police force, it’s hard to imagine the evolution of such a ragtag bunch of detectives into the cultural and investigative icon of today’s Scotland Yard.
My final analysis—The Yard is more thriller than mystery, but Grecian manages to weave enough of the investigative process into the novel that the reader is able to overlook the premature reveal and end up with a ripping good read. I look forward to the sequel, The Black Country, out in Hardcover now.
Alex Grecian maintains a website at alexgrecian.com.