Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Yard by Alex Grecian (A London Murder Squad novel)

Few things make a reading experience more pleasant than when a book offers all the comforts of a familiar genre without being cliché and still having enough surprises in the plot to keep one eagerly turning pages.

Alex Grecian’s TheYard, the first in a new London Murder Squad series, skillfully achieves this, managing to cloak the reader in a Victorian London fans of the genre will find as familiar as an old, well-worn quilt while simultaneously breathing new life into the setting.

And he does all this without even making the book a mystery, though that doesn't diminish the reading experience at all.

First, the time period.

While setting a novel while London is in the grip of fear caused by Jack the Ripper is old hat, Grecian has interestingly set his novel just after the Ripper murders have stopped. This serves to create a more intriguing environment when police morale is especially low, matched only in its depths by the public’s trust in the police. 

Still, it is then that the new murder squad – a special unit of 12 officers – is formed, gated off from the rest of sprawling squad room in the Yard and set to the Sisyphean task of solving some of the thousands of murders the city sees each year.

Fine as a premise in and of itself, but Grecian has injected new life into the well-worn plot foundation, primarily through the uniqueness of the characters populating the squad. 

Each officer is fleshed out and surprisingly complex, adding to their realism. Usually, when dealing with a whole squad, to say nothing of the outsiders involved in the murders taking place, writers will be forced to rely on singular defining aspects of each person, creating a group that is almost cartoonish and reminiscent of a formulaic buddy group movie.

Yet Grecian does not, respectfully taking the time to sketch out each man, filling in details that add to their humanity but without bloating the book.

Sgt. Blacker, for example, is a red-hair jokester with an affinity for puns, but he is also loyal and takes his job very, very seriously. The contrasting personality aspects are exceptionally believable, just as one might have a neighbor who is meticulous about their lawn but can’t keep their car clean.

The squad is led by Col. Sir Edward Bradford, who has one arm and has just returned from the British raj. Grecian’s handling of Bradford as an amputee is masterful, acknowledging it in a realistic way without turning Bradford into a two-dimensional, cardboard character defined by one of his more obvious traits.

 In short, unlike most authors, Grecian doesn’t shout at the readers from between the lines, screeching, “Look! An amputee! Betcha haven’t seen this before!” as I suspect many writers would inadvertently do.

The same can be said for the ancillary characters. An example would be two brief interactions between a landlady and a supporting characters. Neither of the exchanges are particularly long, but both leave the reader with a vibrant understanding of who the people are.

Then there’s the plot itself.

Or rather, plots, but I won’t say more because I loathe spoiler reviews.

Still, I can only say that just because Grecian reveals who the culprit is does not, surprisingly, mean there isn’t far more tell.

And of course there's Grecian's writing.

And Grecian tells his story exceedingly well, switching between points of view skillfully and subtly interweaving historical detail that taught me – an avid reader of several Victorian London mystery series for the past 20 years – new things about the period.

Though I normally hate dream sequences, Grecian wrote one of the best nightmare sequences I have ever come across, both in terms of writing and actually being frightening. 

Short chapters, often opening unexpectedly, give the entire novel the suspenseful rhythm of a train gathering speed on its tracks.

And all of this is accentuated with excellent historical detail. Grecian is a writer who enjoys his research but does not bludgeon the reader over the head with it. He has a fine instinct for what readers will find interesting first and informative second.

Fans of forensic history will undoubtedly enjoy the introduction of Dr. Bernard Kingsley, who teaches our burgeoning squad about some of the newer forensic methods. Again, while the idea of a "rogue" doctor using forensics to help solve a crime is hardly new (after all, Sherlock was developing a chemical to positively identify blood spatter when we meet him), again Grecian somehow makes the concept seem refreshing. 

Delightfully, Grecian has ended this first installment with plenty of room to continue to grow. There’s more to learn about the characters, the time period, the setting….like all really good books, one is left eagerly looking forward to spending time with the characters again and learning more about forensics roads carved in the Ripper’s wake. 

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