The Yard by Alex Grecian (Berkley, May 2012)-It’s 1889 in London and a detective from the Murder Squad has been killed, his mouth sewn shut, and then stuffed in a steamer trunk. Detective Inspector Walter Day is new to the Murder Squad but is assigned the case since he was handpicked by Inspector Adrian March, the head detective on the Ripper case as his replacement after his retirement. He’s had little experience, but because he came recommended by March, Colonel Sir Edward Bradford is eager to see what he can bring to the investigation, especially since it involves one of their own. Day suddenly has the entire Murder Squad at his disposal. Soon, along with Detective Michael Blacker, who has a penchant for inappropriate jokes and Dr. Bernard Kingsley, the Yard’s first forensic pathologist, he finds himself on the trail of a killer who seems to have a fondness for killing policeman and who is quite deft with a sewing needle, which he uses in a particularly macabre way. Why does the killer seem to be targeting policeman? Is there more to the story? Walter Day certainly plans to find out, and there couldn’t be a better man for the job.
The Yard takes place directly after the Ripper murders come to an abrupt end, and not catching that brutal killer has, needless to say, instilled public mistrust in the police. It doesn’t help that the Yard is inundated with cases and woefully short on staff. The Yard doesn’t just cover Day’s search for the cop killer, but also follows Constable’s Hammersmith and Pringle as they sort out the death of a little boy, a chimney sweep, who they found stuck in a chimney after dying a torturous death. This is not exactly within the parameters of their jobs, but Hammersmith refuses to let a little boy’s murder go ignored, and there are reasons for that, reasons beyond just the fact that, for Hammersmith, no one should be forgotten, especially a child. Sweeps were notorious for buying children to do their brutal work and Hammersmith is having none of it. What made this book exceptional for me was, well, a few things. The procedural elements were fascinating, especially in a time before many modern methods were introduced. The idea that everyone had different fingerprints was just finding its footing, and was met with plenty of disbelief. Luckily, Sir Edward is an open minded guy and he trusts his detectives to do their best work
One of the things that I loved the most about The Yard, is not only do you have your main mystery: the killing of police (and you’ll meet the culprit pretty much right away and get to know him quite well), but there are also two more simultaneous cases that our heroes must deal with. Someone is killing bearded men in a most heinous way, and who’s responsible may shock you. We also have the case of the little boy who was found dead in the chimney, which Hammersmith has become intricately enmeshed in, and his motivations are deeply personal. So many things to juggle, but Alex Grecian handles all of these storylines with a sure and clever hand!
While THE YARD is certainly, at its heart, a procedural, it’s the characters that pull you in and make the story so emotional, and involving. Dr. Kingsley is a compassionate and capable man, who has been through his share of tragedy, and his treatment of the dead, with such respect and gentleness, is a stark counter to the rather brutal events swirling around him. Walter Day is a competent, kind man and his marriage to a woman of breeding, Claire, who is determined to make a good wife to her husband, while he worries that she’ll realize her mistake and leave him, provides some needed levity. Trust me, you’ll love Claire. Then there’s Nevil Hammersmith… I admit to having a bit of a crush on Hammersmith, whose heart is as big as London, and well, you’ll see. Wouldn’t want to spoil part of the wonder of this novel. And this is a wonderful novel, make no mistake. Inevitable comparisons have surely been made to The Alienist, by Caleb Carr, which is, incidentally, one of my favorite books, so that’s a good thing, but Alex Grecian has a voice all his own and has succeeded in creating something amazing with The Yard.
In a city rife with squalid alleyways, where criminals and thieves abound, The Yard succeeds, through his wonderful characters, in showing the thread of kindness and humanity that runs through the city, in a time where London was at such a crossroads. By turns terrifying (there’s a dream sequence that is frankly one of the scariest I’ve ever read), fascinating, heartbreaking, and even charming, The Yard, for me, is a not to be missed book for fans of historical suspense. Alex Grecian captured lightning in a bottle with The Yard. Can lightning strike again with The Black Country? I think so, and I can’t wait to find out!