The Yard, Alex Grecian’s first prose novel – he’s previously co-authored the graphic novel series Proof – is a hopelessly formulaic, lurid crime story that feels far more like an attempt to create a franchise than a desire to tell an actual story. Set in London just after Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror has ended, The Yard wants so badly to tell us how awful Victorian society was for those outside the privileged classes that it pelts the reader with a series of hoary details that beat that horse until it’s glue and steak frites.
The Yard opens with a cheap attention-grabber – a dead cop is found stuffed in a steamer trunk at a London railway station with his eyes and mouth sewn shut. This introduces us to Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad, a group of a dozen (now eleven) detectives assigned to look solely at homicides, of which there are far too many in London for this unit to handle. We also encounter Dr. Kingsley, the amateur forensic pathologist and assigned Voice of Reason whose mere presence makes this feel like the pilot for CSI: London. The detectives, led by the just-promoted Inspector Walter Day, work to solve the murder of their colleague, eventually splitting into factions to investigate potentially related crimes, including the murders of several bearded men, which eventually put several of the detectives in jeopardy (of course) and lead to two resolutions.
Grecian’s characters are his saving grace, and if I had any desire to continue with the sequel The Black Country, it would be to follow them. He’s crafted four strong police characters in Day, Inspector Blacker, their boss Sir Edward Bradford, and the constable Hammersmith, each of whom has a well-defined personality and admixture of positive and negative traits. (There are no worthwhile female characters, so the book flunks the Bechdel test entirely.) We get too much of Day’s home life without any real payoff, but Hammersmith’s back story turns out to be critical in defining the character and explaining some of his subversive actions.
Unfortunately, Grecian panders to the audience from the start by keeping his crimes graphic and offering repeated “shocks” to end maybe half of the book’s hundred-odd four-page chapters. We have the initial police murder, and then the murders of the bearded men who were shaved and then had their throats slit. We have a dead child, left to die in gruesome fashion, and the kidnapping of another by a man who may be a pedophile (Grecian implies this but, in a welcome bit of self-restraint, spares us any such details) but is certainly a psychopath. We have prostitutes, one a surviving victim of Saucy Jack himself. We get lots of time in Kingsley’s lab, with murder victims and others like the child laborer whose jaw was eaten away by phosphorus due to her work in a match factory. None of this was essential to the central plot, just extraneous details to titillate the reader and satisfy the same cravings that make lowbrow shows like Criminal Minds so successful.
The two central crimes also failed to grab my interest, and their resolutions revolved too much on coincidence and too little on actual policework for a novel ostensibly about police work. We learn the identity of the cop-killer before the quarter mark, and we get interludes from his perspective that add nothing beyond making it clear he’s a dangerous loony. He keeps showing his hand to the detectives, and he’s eventually found out through dumb luck. The so-called “Bearded Killer” is revealed a little later in the book, but it’s a crime without intrigue and only comes into play because Hammersmith ends up the target here before another idiot gets in the way and takes the razor intended for the constable. The Yard doesn’t need a Sherlock Holmes, solving cases in a few hours through the powers of deduction, but I can’t say London would be any safer through these bobbies blundering through their cases and waiting for the killer to all but turn himself in.
* I’m dispensing with a full writeup for George Eliot’s Adam Bede, which appears on the Bloomsbury 100, as it was dull and a tough slog, a real disappointment after I enjoyed Middlemarch. Adam Bede is preachy, with its too-perfect characters and over-the-top depiction of a girl in trouble treated unfairly due to Victorian attitudes. (I’m sure it’s all quite accurate, but I don’t imagine this story would have changed many Victorian minds through its telling.) Adam is a simple, kind laborer who wants to work for a better life, falls for the wrong girl, then eventually falls for the right one, the end. It reads like a first novel, which it was, and takes so long to even get into the main plot that I would have given up after 100 pages had I not been so hellbent on finishing the entire Bloomsbury list.
* Next up: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which was a finalist for both the the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (the year when the board declined to give the award to any title) and the inaugural Andrew Carnegie Medal (losing to Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz).