The Yard–Alex Grecian

The Yard“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?”

“It’s inhuman.”

“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.

Scotland Yard

Scotland Yard

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

Joseph Bell

Joseph Bell

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.BlackCountry

B

 

Alex Grecian maintains a website at alexgrecian.com.

Cadaver In Chief–Steve Hockensmith

Cadaver In Chief

“Hello,” Woods said as she walked to her car.  “Hello.  Hello.  Hello.  Hello.  Hello.”  She said, “Hello” to everyone she passed, and they all said “Hello” to her.  Anyone who didn’t say “Hello” would get looked at pretty hard.  Maybe even shot. 

The end times were hell on shy people.

The end times were also pretty much hell on the newspaper industry.  Already under siege by the rise of on-line media, the zombie apocalypse put the last coffin nail in a dying industry.  After all, if people were taking their lives in their hands every time they left the house for work, they certainly wouldn’t want to venture out in search of a People magazine or their favourite daily.  Besides—all the paperboys were dead.

Jan Woods, reporter for the Washington Tribute, is winding down her last couple of days before retirement, reporting puff pieces on dog grooming that no one is likely to read.  She’s going through the motions: research story…shoot a zombie…write the story…run down a zombie with her car…etc. etc. Just another day in the big city.  However, when that city is Washington, from time to time one must forget about the mindless undead and write about the brainless living.  Send in the politicians!

As it so happens, Jan’s editor has an interesting story for her to pursue. A nasty rumour has surfaced online, “Nasty” being the term used these days to describe the walking dead.  Nasty, as in the President’s been dead for a while, but he’s still walking around, glad-handing and kissing babies (nasty!) and all the assorted duties of the commander in chief.  Or, Cadaver in Chief, if the rumours are true.

Not since Watergate had such a juicy tip fallen into the hands of a Washington reporter, crazy though it sounds.  If the president is really a former president, a “ManChompian” candidate of sorts, then it’s a conspiracy that reaches to the highest level of government, and Jan’s got herself a scoop that could end her career on a high note.  However, if the plot goes as deep as that, Jan’s got a scoop that could end her—permanently.

There is a bit of a snag—the juicy tip comes from one Rick Klinger, on-line conspiracy freak and blogger for Truthbuffet.org, a left wing “political” site akin to the Huffington Post.  Known as a bit of a loon, Klinger (who bears a striking resemblance to the odious Alex Jones—minus the obvious psychopathy) has a source within the Republican administration that claims President Brick Bradley died months earlier during a political fundraiser and the man making the rounds is actually an imposter.  However, Klinger is also a paranoid loon (again, Alex Jones) and won’t divulge his source for Jan to check out. As for her queries to the White House:

“Quote: The President is alive and well and you’re an idiot and don’t call here again. Unquote.”

Jan is nothing if not persistent, and during the course of the next several days investigates the hotel (and morgue) where the president was rumoured to have died. Next thing you know, there’s a parcel in her apartment, containing a dwarf zombie with a huge appetite.  He’s also got an explosive personality.  Maybe there is something to the rumours after all?

From there it’s an action packed adventure through Washington and its surroundings as Jan searches for answers while avoiding the attentions of mysterious government operatives and having conversations in dark parking lots with the likes of, “Debbie Does Dallas”, the “Deep Throat” of this decidedly anti-first amendment administration and their zombie minions.  Luckily, Jan is very pro-second amendment (who wouldn’t be in a world where take out dinner describes what might happen to you?) and has gotten pretty good with that hot pink Uzi she got at 7-11.  The story climaxes with a literal assault on the first amendment as Jan and her coworkers fight for their lives in the offices of the Washington Tribune, and shortly thereafter, a reelection rally that no one would forget—if they survive it.

Cadaver in Chief is a tongue in cheek political mystery that pays homage to movies like The Manchurian Candidate and All the Presidents Men—with zombies.  It’s also a nice little novella.  However, if there’s any problem with this mini-novel, it’s that it could use a little fleshing out.  Steve Hockensmith creates an interesting mystery full of government operatives and smarmy politicians, political apathy and conspiracy nuts (who may not be so nutty) and the type of experiments that might get a scientist branded “mad”,  but ten chapters is barely enough space to scratch the surface.  By the end of the novella, I felt a bit—unsatisfied.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because the story was lacking, rather that it lacked a bit of story.  Or, to put it another way—this novella screams for a sequel.

As for the main character, Jan Woods may be the stereotypically “plucky” reporter, but she’s also days away from retirement, much like “that cop” in any police procedural, and it’s refreshing to see a character who’s not a young, perky blonde with crazy computer skills and a body to die for.  Nor is she the grizzled Ed Asner type, simply a good reporter who’s become slightly apathetic in an age where no one respects her medium (newsprint) yet still wants to get the truth out there.

Of course, good dialogue is something I’ve always appreciated in a novel, and it’s something Steve Hockensmith excels at.  Granted, in real life not everyone is witty or wittily sarcastic (although they might like to think so), but, as I’ve said before–smart, funny dialogue is a defining feature of his previous novels.

I was a little worried at times that this was simply going to be a put-down of conservative (read that as Republican) politicians, but as time went on, the satiric vitriol came down pretty much equally on both sides of the aisle.  If there’s one thing that crosses party lines, it’s the capacity of politicians to set themselves up for ridicule.

Overall, Cadaver in Chief is a bit of zombie fun that partisans of both liberal and conservative bent can sink their teeth into.

B

(A word of apology to Steve Hockensmith: He was gracious enough to send me a preview copy of Cadaver in Chief back in November and grant me an interview, yet it’s taken until now for me to get a review together.  I’ve no readily available excuse except to claim a bit of “zombie fatigue” which has resulted in the delay.  Steve Hockensmith is a great writer and a good guy, and if you’d like to learn more about his works and process, he maintains a blog at http://www.stevehockensmith.com)

World’s Greatest Sleuth!–Steve Hockensmith

“This, I realized, was what it would look like to go up against a killer who knew more about detectiving than we did–a professional as opposed to talented amateurs like ourselves.  If mystery solving’s truly a game, as Valmont had said at dinner the night before, then there was one conclusion I couldn’t escape.

We were out of our league.”~Otto Amlingmeyer

It’s 1893.  Otto and Gustav Amlingmeyer find themselves convalescing at a Texas Angora ranch (well, Gustav is convalescing; Otto is going stir crazy) after the events of The Crack in the Lens.  Luckily, (for Otto) the downtime has been put to good use–his latest manuscript (being Gustav’s official biographer, Otto acts as a Watson like scribe–minus the doctoring) is finished and ready to be mailed to the New York publisher of their “Holmes on the Range” adventures–one Urias Smythe.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Urias Smythe has been busy, and when Otto heads to the local Western Union to submit his manuscript, he finds a missive from Smythe to hop the next iron horse to Chicago.  Urias has enrolled the brothers Amlingmeyer in a contest at the World’s Columbian Exposition, pitting their talents against other amateur detectives for the title of World’s Greatest Sleuth!

The game’s afoot.  Literally. 

Upon arrival in Chicago, the brothers meet the competition.  There’s King Brady, looking awfully spry, Eugene Valmont, former French policeman (mildly disgraced), Boothby Greene (Sherlock Holmes look-a-like if nothing else), and of course, the team of Diana Corvus (possible paramour?) and Col. C. Kermit Crowe (disgruntled former employer to the Amlingmeyers).  They’ve all been brought together for a publisher funded sleuth, a treasure hunt of sorts for amateur detectives.  Each day, the puzzlemaster, one Armstrong B. Curtis, will supply clues to each of the teams, and the first to bring him and William Pinkerton (son of Allan and judge of the event) a golden egg hidden on the grounds shall be declared that day’s winner.  At the end of the contest, the sleuth with the greatest skills, or at least the ability to solve word  puzzles, would be walk away with $10 000 and the aforementioned title.

Of course, nothing comes easy for the Amlingmeyers.  First of all, Gustav can’t read, so Otto’s along for the ride.  Secondly, Otto finds himself out of sorts seeing Diana Corvus once again.  Diana epitomizes the girl who got away, and she’s working with Crowe, a man who despises the Amlingmeyers.  Thirdly–she’s Crowe’s DAUGHTER!!  One final distraction: by the end of the first day, the puzzlemaster is found dead, face first in a giant wheel of Canadian Cheddar (World’s Largest, they say!).

From the start, Gustav had little patience for the contest, more concerned with justice for the dead than some silly riddles and a golden egg, and with the help of Diana, they’re on the trail of the killer, a killer who has all the skills of a world-class detective.

 Trailed by a never-ending series of bearded men (sinister, eh?), the brothers must compete for the prize, solve the murder and manage not to get killed, preferably in that order.

World’s Greatest Sleuth is the fifth and latest instalment in the Holmes on the Range series and a worthy addition.  If you like witty repartee, a decent mystery, and some historical relevance (such as a walk through the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition), then this tale of the cowboy detectives is right up your alley.

Steve Hockensmith maintains his own blog, aptly titled Steve’s Blog , where you can keep abreast of his latest exploits and browse his earlier works.

Steve Hockensmith celebrates the Publication of World’s Greatest Sleuth with a gift to the fans.

Steve Hockensmith courtesy of Central Crime Zone

Okay, if you’ve come here today looking for a sneak peek of Steve Hockensmith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After, well, you’re about to be disappointed.  My best efforts to obtain an advanced copy to review have come to naught.  Something to do with Quirk not willing to ship to Canada, I think.  (I know, I know, I’m disappointed too!)  It’ll be published in late March (March 22, 2011 to be exact), so at least our mutual disappointment will be short-lived.

 
If you’re here and you’ve never heard of the Holmes on the Range series of mysteries, well then, SHAME ON YOU!  Run down to your local bookstore/library/computer and buy, borrow or download yourself copies of the entire series.  THE ENTIRE SERIES.  Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
 
However, if you’re here because you’re a fan of the Amlingmeyer brothers (Otto and Gustav) and their sleuthing adventures in latter part of the 19th century, well now, you’ve come across a bit of luck.  Just this past January the fifth book in the series, World’s Greatest Sleuth, was published, continuing the tale of brothers Big Red (Otto) and Old Red (Gustav), two cowboy/detectives with a penchant for trouble and a fascination with their compatriot from across the water, one Sherlock Holmes.
 
To celebrate the publication of this newest book, Hockensmith has decided to favour his fans with a little freebie, the first story featuring the brothers Amlingmeyer, dear-mr-holmes . 
 
You can also follow Steve’s musings and schedule at his blog site, www.stevehockensmith.com.