People who own stock art of foggy Victorian landscapes with ominous men in hats must be making a fortune due to this surge in recent Victorian era historical fictions. Here’s another one! This is a sequel to the book I reviewed earlier this year, The Yard. I believe this will be an ongoing series.
To refresh your (and my) memory, The Yard is about the first real homicide department in existence. It takes place soon after Jack the Ripper haunted London’s streets, and deals with truly heinous crimes, the gritty city at its worst, and the beginnings of forensic science. There are a lot of peripheral characters, but a few main characters. Walter Day leads the new murder squad, and Nevil Hammersmith is his second-in-command, and Dr. Kingsley is their one-man CSI unit. Day straddles the line between a middle class existence and a living earned in the foulest places you can imagine. Hammersmith was raised in a coal mining village (he happily escaped) and is routinely drugged or knocked unconscious. Kingsley is your typical Holmes-esque forensic expert. More comfortable with the dead than the living, devoted to science, a bit lacking in tact.
These three main characters are transplanted from their London homes for this sequel, set in the eponymous Black Country, aka the west Midlands. This is the area around Birmingham, a little past halfway between London and Liverpool. Instead of the bustling London city with its heinous East End slums and glamorous Hyde Park apartments, the three of them are looking for a missing family in a tiny coal mining town, precariously perched on top of those same mines. Every building in the place is in constant danger of toppling into the ground. Every person is hiding something, is superstitious and secretive, is overwhelmed with a bleak and destitute life.
A husband, wife, and their young child have been missing a few days time when the officers arrive. The couple’s remaining children have something to hide, but we know not what. Someone drug’s Constable Hammersmith (not the first time). A mysterious illness has sprung up in town and infected the majority of the townspeople. An old wives’ tale about ‘Rawhead and Bloody Bones’ has convinced the citizens of Blackhampton that evil lurks in their mist. The Londoners dismiss it as tosh, until Walter Day sees a man with half his cheek missing, his teeth visible through the side of his face.
Like The Yard, this isn’t an overcomplicated book. It’s a mystery, easy breezy and interesting. I think the pace was a little slower, which meant it took me a bit longer to finish. But there were enough red herrings and multiple plot lines to keep me interested. The scenes are very readable; it’s never too taxing. On the other hand, there were a few flaws. For one thing, just as with the Yard, I figured out the answer to the mystery with 40-50 pages left to go. That’s a long time to slog through when you already know what’s happened. There was one surprise at the very end, but for the most part I was not surprised by whodunnit.
Another problem is that a lot of the scenes described were very physical–lots of searching through forests or mines, or scenes of sifting through a destroyed building. There’s nothing wrong with writing scenes like that, but I had a very hard time picturing the action in my head. Alex Grecian is a comic book writer, which means he hasn’t had to rely on describing action in the past. That may be why his descriptions weren’t always clear enough for me to grasp. I found it bothersome just because if you can’t picture the thing in your imagination, it takes you out of the action. I tried to read through again to get a better handle on those scenes, but it didn’t work. I just wasn’t given enough information to construct the physical place in my head.
Finally, there were a few plot pieces that never got tied up. One of the local police officers is killed soon after the Londoners arrive, and there’s hardly a mention of him again. Once or twice, people inquire after his whereabouts, but that’s it. No one finds his body, no one seems inordinately worried about him or why he isn’t assisting with the investigation. I found this bothersome. I expected his body to be found at the end, or some other bow to be wrapped around that storyline, but it was just left that way. Similarly, no mention at the end of what will/does happen to the legions of sick townsfolk. But it’s a series…maybe that will be addressed in the next one?
There’s an American man involved in all this, and we see his history, we see why he’s there, we see him die, but we never find out his name or his story. Maybe Alex Grecian didn’t think it was particularly important, but I was bothered by the lack of information. There are snippets about him, but after he died I was expecting some revelation about his identity, and nothing came. Nor did we learn much about the man he was trying to kill. I wanted more info!
Compared to The Yard, the Black Country has a pretty miserable ending. A lot more people die, a lot more people are swallowed by grief during the course of the book. It’s darker. Pretty incredible, considering the Yard dealt with male bodies being found in trunks at the train station. The books are a light read, but the subject matter is nowhere near light.
Coal miner towns are such an amazing thing to think about, particularly back in the pre-union times of the 19th century. I can’t imagine a worse existence, particularly when you consider the fact that people still go down there. But back in the 19th century, children were down there, men, women, ponies, canaries. Everyone. For incredibly long shifts for criminally low wages. No chance to ever escape that life. It had never occurred to me that the coal mines, the tunnels they dug, would actually endanger the towns and structures above. It makes sense, obviously, but the idea of the entire town plunging slowly into a sinkhole and the residents casual acceptance of that fact…is hard to comprehend. I’ve read some other things about coal mining towns, particularly by Dylan Thomas, and those accounts can be incredibly moving. This book didn’t aspire to that level of grim realism about the people in those situations, but I think it missed the mark a little even with modest expectations. It seems more like a 21st-century story transplanted to the past (a mystery is much easier without cell phones and heat sensors) than a story grown from that era. Understandable, but not all historical fiction has to be that way. Stories can seem at home in the past. Mark Twain wrote about King Arthur’s Court, Charles Dickens wrote about the French Revolution. Someone who understands human nature can put themselves in the shoes of everyone, present or past. It might be bizarre, it might be difficult, but it’s possible. With this book it just wasn’t really done. With The Yard, I think I had almost the identical problem. The difference between the two is that the Black Country seemed a little more tedious to me, and a little less satisfying at the end. I’m hoping the next one will be back in London, and will be a bit faster-paced.
Also, as I pointed out in my review of the Yard, a bobby actually says ‘wot’s all this then??’ while approaching a crime scene. Anxious not to let down every stereotype we Americans have of the British police, Grecian has had another bobby say it in this book. I mean, really? Did Grecian get his copper talk from this list of stock British phrases? Cor, blimey!