London, 1889. Scotland Yard is still reeling from the horrors of Jack the Ripper. It is already difficult to be a Metropolitan Detective; the public is suspicious and unappreciative, and “The Murder Squad” is seen as contemptible and useless.
A new case is developing, in this first novel by graphic novelist Alex Grecian. New hire Walter Day is given the unenviable job of tracking down a murderer who has “offed” of one of Scotland Yard’s own. There are twelve detectives (now only eleven) to man the entire squad, in a time of London’s history where horrors and squalor is rampant. Is Day up to the job?
There are real names peppered throughout this story, including the indomitable one-armed Sir Edward Bradford who founded The Murder Squad in 1889. The mix of the realistic setting and the atmospheric tone of foggy London make a great foundation for a climatic adventure. I didn’t get a full feeling of period England, though, since the book is very character-driven. Walter Day, his constable Nevil Hammersmith, and wonderfully before-his-time police pathologist Dr. Bernard Kingsley are the three key characters around which the story weaves.
There is a sub-plot, somewhat confusing, about the murders of bearded men which overlap and underpin the main tale. Then there is the main story and a sidebar story that intertwine, bringing to the reader the horror of being a young boy in those days, pressed into service at five or six years of age in the mines to the north, or as chimney sweeps in the city. These London lads, called “climbing boys,” we often kidnapped, used as long as they stayed small, and then abandoned by their callous masters. Of course, there are other reasons for kidnapping as well…
I enjoyed the brief intervals throughout the book which serve to give some background (which I assume will grow in depth as the series continues) on the characters: Day’s promotion from a country bobby to a detective, Hammersmith’s childhood background in the mines, and Dr. Kingsley’s formation of the pathology department, an unpaid gig that Kingsley fervently believes in. The underbelly of London is exposed here—from Blackleg, the underworld informant who doesn’t like injustices being done to London’s boys, to the murderer himself. Madness and evil are dominant here, and survival is a day-to-day struggle for most. The Yard is not a light read, but it is interesting and compelling.
This book (and any potential sequels) has lots of possibilities. Although the plot development could be a bit stronger, I really like the characters and the glimpse of the working man’s Victorian London. Yes, it is more geared toward the men in the world at that time; the only women characters that “work” are the streetwalkers. Day’s wife, for example, isn’t given a very large role in the story. Stories about Victorian detectives and policemen are not rare; I hope that author Alex Grecian can grow along with his series.