The Yard (a book review)

The Yard
It’s somewhere between the street and the front door…

First thing’s first: this is not a book about gardening. So imagine my disappointment as I stood there with a trowel, plants, some fresh soil and zero sense of direction on what to do with it all. Oh, well. I was only disappointed for a moment because The Yard turned out to be fascinating crime novel that challenged my expectations of what a crime novel is these days. Often they are plot-fueled thrillers that are easily forgotten afterwards. The Yard adds another dimension.

Synopsis

In the era of Jack the Ripper, London’s citizenry has lost faith in their police force.  In the congested city, murders go unsolved, children go missing, there is little justice for the poor and downtrodden. The detectives of the Yard are handicapped by their own lack of real authority and the massive volume of case-loads.

Inspector Walter Day has only just joined the squad of detectives when the body of Detective Little shows up at a train station, stuffed in a piece of luggage. It is, of course, immediately evident that he was murdered, but there is not much in the way of clues. Inspector Day is assigned the case, which doesn’t sit will with the other detectives.

On the streets of London, constable Hammersmith finds the body of the small boy left to die stuck in a chimney, most likely by the chimney sweep who employed him. The detectives can do nothing, but Hammersmith can’t let it go.

In the city morgue, Doctor Kingsley looks to apply new forensic sciences in Europe to his own work for the police force. If the Yard will give him the chance, he’s sure these unproven methods will actually prove to be exactly what they need to break open their cases.

Analysis

While on the surface it appears to be a multifaceted murder-mystery, The Yard is deeper.  As much as it’s about the mysteries, it is, to a larger extent, about the detectives themselves and the bluebottles (the beat cops) who worked the streets of London near the end of the 19th century.  Author Alex Grecian juggles several characters (but not too many) amicably, giving the reader an in-depth look into each one and focusing on how the crimes and the criminals they are trying to root out affect their everyday lives. Each player, even the wrong-doers, has a personal stake in events. The Yard is about more than one man or one mystery.

The author brings these people to life with scenes of well-written dialogue. Each character sounds unique; their individual way of talking and interacting with the other characters is never lost from scene to scene. In fact, it’s a dialogue-heavy book, which suits me just fine. The author uses these moments to create not only real suspense but interesting drama that draws the reader into the lives of the characters. That’s not to say that each character is richly textured. There isn’t space to do that. But the author opens the characters up enough to let their personal traits help drive the story.

The setting also plays its part here. The author is American and resides in the U.S., but apparently likes London quite a bit. He creates a vivid Sherlock Holmes-era setting that is not only believable, but also helps to shape the story and how the characters and events all work within it. There aren’t any masterminds or super-sleuths. The criminals make human decisions, which lead them down unexpected paths. The protagonists react in believable and consistent way.

All of this allows the novel to develop in what feels like a very organic way. I’m guessing Mr. Grecian had some things plotted out, maybe all of it, but it feels like the characters are not forced into a plot outline. There is, however, one exception, which leads me to my one complaint.

The parallel mysteries that the author weaves into the story all wrap up nicely at the end, giving all the major characters some kind of positive personal climax. It’s too-neat of a bow to wrap around such a character-driven book. There was no reason cases couldn’t be left open, still waiting to be solved, no reason a particular character staring at yet another obstacle on their journey as the novel concluded. I think that would have added yet another layer of complexity to these detectives of the Yard.

 

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