To hunt for anachronisms in historical fiction is a churlish hobby, but there’s a telling one in Alex Grecian’s affable first novel, a Victorian thriller. A detective describing his sense of responsibility to the families of murder victims employs a 1990s buzzword that it’s exceedingly unlikely would have entered the mind, much less the mouth, of a man in 1889: “closure.” The Yard has a great many virtues, including a Dickensian profusion of memorable minor characters, but this misstep lays bare its most serious flaw. Its heroes get shallower, not deeper, until by the book’s conclusion they seem like moralizing contemporary stick figures, freed from the complexity of their time. What feels like a third of the novel is devoted to their good deeds and subsequent mutual congratulation. In this mist of bonhomous closure, the suspense of a thriller fades. At the start, police in Euston Station discover a trunk stuffed with the corpse of a Scotland Yard inspector. In the course of a few mostly sleepless days, three men—Walter Day, a newly promoted member of the Yard’s “Murder Squad”; Nevil Hammersmith, a shrewd street officer; and Bernard Kingsley, an eccentric physician with an interest in the emerging science of forensics—circle a net around the murderer. The Yard also pays welcome stylistic homage to the rambling Victorian triple-decker, with plots and characters spiraling out in every direction from its initial crime scene. Among others there are a pair of prostitutes haunted by memories of Jack the Ripper, a new police commissioner, an amiably violent thief named Blackleg—and, in absorbing occasional glimpses, the murderer, a madman trying to recreate his lost family. It’s this sense of madness that is the book’s greatest strength. Grecian places the action of his story directly in the shadow of the Ripper murders, and sketches, intriguingly, how those crimes have forced the police to accept that murder can have darkly psychological motives. Grecian has a fine, flexible, curious voice, and The Yard looks as if it could be the start of a promising series; indeed, the enterprising Blackleg on his own could profitably drive a sequel, and the rise of forensics is a fascinating subject. And then, Grecian’s error is a common one. Even great authors working in the genre, such as David Mitchell and Patrick O’Brian, have given their characters an unrealistically modern broadness of mind. After all, the past is a brutish place, and what a real Walter Day would have believed in his heart—about sex, class, race—would likely alienate us immediately. The solution most writers have found, alas, is perhaps the most serious deficiency historical fiction has: a palliating dishonesty about what went on in the heads of people in other times. To his credit, Grecian lends great realism to his secondary characters; he may just be too fond of his primary ones to permit them their true context. Agent: Seth Fishman, the Gernert Company. (June) Charles Finch is the author of A Death in the Small Hours, which Minotaur will publish in November.
Reviewed on: 04/09/2012 Release date: 05/29/2012 Genre: Fiction