One of the lasting attractions of Alex Grecian’s debut historical crime novel, The Yard, is the fascinating way it lets readers in on the dramatic differences and particulars of another era without seeming ponderous or lecture-y.
Grecian, a well-known graphic novelist, applies his skills as a wordsmith here, giving readers an on-the-spot, intimate picture of London in 1889—what it’s like to be lost in the underground warrens of a London workhouse; visit a hospital filled with the poor and dying; or witness first-hand the rudimentary methods of a London pathology lab, just beginning to make the jump into what will shortly become modern forensic science.
The heart of The Yard involves the 12-member “Murder Squad,” a newly created unit of London’s Metropolitan Police Force (soon to become Scotland Yard). The Squad works under the leadership of police commissioner Sir Edward Bradford, a daunting figure with a dry sense of humor and a perceptive grasp of his men and his times. Accustomed to the numbing ordeal of everyday crimes resulting from street robbery, domestic violence and poverty, the Squad has failed to stop Jack the Ripper’s recent rampage of terror and is just beginning to struggle with this “new breed of killer”—one who may kill for enjoyment or to follow the dictates of some inner demon.
After one of their own is dispatched in especially grisly fashion, the remaining members of the Murder Squad are determined to catch the killer. Inspector Walter Day is new to London, but is tapped to head up the investigation, and he works closely with Dr. Bernard Kingsley, one of England’s first forensic pathologists and a man of immense importance, as he tries to make use of the new science of fingerprinting to break the case. Day, Kingsley and the rest of the men head out onto London’s streets, and the narrative swings back and forth among the detectives as they go about their tasks in a kind of Victorian Hill Street Blues fashion, while several odd crimes snake around and begin connecting up with their investigation.
Day and his men meet up with a couple of intriguing street people, including Blackleg, a streetwise ne’er-do-well who has a soft spot for an honest cop, and the marvelous “dancing man,” a keeper character if ever there was one. Readers who enter The Yard’s world-on-the-edge-of-change will be counting days until the sequel, hoping to meet some of these great characters again.