At this point, author Alex Grecian has several more “Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad” novels out and about. The Black Country is the second one in the series and also the second one I have read after the outstanding The Yard (read the review here).
The Black Country differs quite a bit from the first novel. The locale is moved out of London to an outlying coal mining town. A freak April snowstorm blankets the area, while Inspector Walter Day and Sergeant Neville Hammersmith are called out to help in a missing-persons case. Secrets and superstitions run deep in the isolated town, where coal is both life and death.
Like in The Yard before it, the author excels at creating distinct and interesting characters. The bad guys aren’t archetypes and the good guys are not entirely good. There are shades of grey wherein the dimensions of the individual characters exist. The author allows himself the freedom to construct the story in this space. As a reader, I really enjoy that.
In this case, that means this story is heavy on the dialogue. It’s a throwback to an earlier area of detective novels, where the players discover each other through interaction. Scenes evolve between characters talking to each other in a crowded inn while the storm rages around them. Yes, there is action, things do happen, but it’s more Murder on the Orient Express (the new movie was great) than it is Lethal Weapon (the movies or the television show).
The setting itself is as much of a character as anything, which is a big draw here as well. The town of Blackhampton isn’t fully realized from end to end, but that’s works well because it’s given to the reader as the characters see it in the midst of the storm. You only get a sense of the town as it is in the nightmarish weather. It creates a sense of foreboding and isolation, as well as a fragility that balances on a knife’s edge. It wouldn’t take much to make this town fade away.
The knock I’ll give The Black country is similar to author’s first book. While the characters are fascinating, it isn’t the deepest or most suspenseful mystery. Either the clues along the way are far too obvious, or the mystery itself doesn’t have as much draw as one would hope. It’s okay to keep readers in the dark, right? As much as I love the characters and the setting, I want some confusion and misdirection. I want to ask myself, “What the heck does that mean? What’s going on here?” There are a few twists and turns, but a spotlight is shining on them from almost the beginning.
This may not matter to you, though. If you like a little costume drama with well-drawn characters, some narratives twists, a dose of death and mayhem, and a coal town sinking slowly to its demise, I think you’ll like The Black Country. You don’t even have to start with The Yard.