I have since discovered that the author is from the Midwest, and has never been to London. Sigh. Listen, I’m writing a historical fiction set in a similar time period in a similar place, so I’m not going to disparage the guy for his choice of setting. But he could have gone on a research trip, yes? I mean it’s not like you can step back in time and see the London you’re writing about, but you can see a lot of the same buildings. And there’s a feeling of the UK that you sort of have to see and sense, rather than read about or imagine. Maybe that’s just me.
Anyway! I will start this review by humiliating myself and admitting that I didn’t get for the first 10 pages or so that this was about Scotland Yard. I knew it was a detective story, but for some reason I didn’t put the two together until it was explicitly stated in the text. I was thinking the eponymous Yard was a prison or a particular place. I don’t know why I thought that. Oh well. The plot of the book is your sort of classic detective story. It centers around 4 or 5 characters, all of whom work for the Yard, on the newly formed Murder Squad. In response to the Jack the Ripper killings, the Metropolitan Police formed what was probably the first homicide department in the world. This book takes place only a few years after the Ripper disappeared, in a London still very much preoccupied with his presence and what his existence might mean about the future of the (then) largest city in the world. Much is made of the diminished public opinion of the police force, of their constantly being overworked and lacking necessary resources. We focus on Inspector Walter Day, new to the Yard from the country, as well as Dr. Kingsley, a self-appointed city medical examiner and forensics expert. Since Kingsley was based on a true character, I won’t bring up any Sherlock Holmes similarities. There’s also descent, hardworking Constable Hammersmith, raised in Collier, Wales to a mining family and escaping to the city to spend his life above ground. Look, the characters aren’t subtle. Nothing in particular about the book is subtle.
The action opens when one of the Investigators of the Murder Squad is found murdered, his eyes and mouth sewn shut with thread, and stuffed inside a steamer trunk. By the end of the action, there is one more officer dead, a small boy killed, a series of men shaved and then slit at the throat (or possibly the other way round), and a very disturbing kidnapping. Narrative shifts between the characters of the detectives, and even to the killer. It’s never confusing, however, as I suspect making it very readable was a priority more than making it particularly deep or thought-provoking. And it is incredibly readable. I finished it in about 4 days time, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute, despite the flaws.
This is a book that purports to take place in the 19th century, but it doesn’t really. Well, it’s as if modern characters are transplanted there and made to speak in British colloquialisms. None of them belong to their time, and it’s not very believable in that sense. They seem to have sprung up there, but they are not of the 19th century, if that makes sense. And even the British colloquialisms they speak are mostly anachronistic and some utterly ridiculous–someone, a police officer, actually says ‘What’s all this then?’, like a bad Simpsons parody. It’s not a well-done historical fiction. It could never pass for something that would have come of the period. But that doesn’t make it a bad book.
It’s a quick, engrossing read. It’s a lot of fun to read, even though the killer’s identity and reasons are given to us fairly early on. There is a lot of action, and it’s sort of the equivalent of the last few episodes of the season on 24. The action is pretty nonstop, so much so that it all sort of congregates and overlaps into a truly ridiculously fortuitous climax that is frankly unbelievable. The resolution wraps every character into a nice tidy little bow. This is, I think, the sort of book other people read most often. Not challenging, not difficult, but fun and easy. It’s not the sort of thing I usually read, and if it weren’t set in 19th century London, I’m certain I never would have read it. That being said, I enjoyed it. It felt a bit like junk food. You know you’re not getting nutrients, but you are enjoying the taste. And that’s okay! Junk food is okay every once in a while.
Also, as a side note, I do not for one second believe that Alex Grecian is his real name.