Written by Alex Grecian — Though Alex Grecian has written several graphic novels, The Yard is his first prose crime fiction book. Released in the summer, it’s done well on both sides of the Atlantic and we thought New Talent November would be a great place to spread the word about this book set in Victorian London. It explores the beginnings of the famous London Murder Squad, and looks at the early days of forensics used as a method of solving crimes. Given the technology of the day, it is far removed from what you’ll find in Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell’s books.
The year is 1889 and London still hasn’t come to terms with the Jack the Ripper murders of the previous year. The city broils with anger that one man could kill in this way repeatedly and get away with it. The Murder Squad has been set up by Scotland Yard to reassure the population, but the unit is overworked understaffed, and has lost its most experienced detective. Into his shoes steps Walter Day, brought in from Devon. Already feeling out of his depth, Day feels he’s been sized up by his colleagues and found wanting.
Just when he’s expecting to be sent back to Devon as a failure, his name comes up and he lands the case which will either make or break him – indeed it may even finish off the fledgling Murder Squad if he doesn’t get a result. The Yard’s own Inspector Charles Little has been murdered. He was stabbed numerous times, and his eyes and lips were sewn together while he was still alive. Perhaps Jack the Ripper is back, or another serial killer is plying his trade in London.
Day gets some help from Colonel Sir Edward Bradford, the new head of the squad. He also partners up with Inspector Michael Blacker who, though he shares the misgivings of the squad, is prepared to give Day a chance to prove himself. The young Constable Hammersmith is on his side too. But, perhaps most importantly, Day has the support of Dr Bernard Kingsley, a pioneer of forensic science who is driven to solve the mysteries of the dead in order to give them back their dignity after his own wife was treated so poorly.
There is a lot to admire about this debut. Personally I really enjoy mysteries from this period, and all the trappings are here: pea-soupers, hansom cabs, East End gangsters. It all feels authentic, and the clashes between different classes are handled particularly well. The tremendous poverty and absolute lack of expectation of the lower class versus the well-heeled arrogance and sense of entitlement of the upper class felt perfectly judged to me.
The fledgling forensic science is an interesting touch, and the author is able to explain its development in a way that aids the story. I was worried it might be a little dry and didactic, but this never happens.
This is the start of a series, and it might be a long one. It does feel like everyone’s a little too nice, though. There aren’t enough rough edges. Day is a kind-hearted, empathic soul who loves his wife and desperately wants to live up to her opinion of him. Dr Kingsley is devoted to his daughter and to the memory of his late wife. Hammersmith worked in the Welsh mines as a young boy and is determined to succeed so that no child of his will have to do the same. Maybe a little grit, a little darkness inside the squad would add a little to the intrigue. Perhaps this is something which will appear in later books.
Minor quibbles aside, this is a very good debut, and I will be reading whatever Alex Grecian has his Murder Squad get up to next.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars