Last term, my Creative Writing students nominated and brought in examples of writing by their favourite author. One of my students presented the opening pages of this book and I was sufficiently impressed to track the book down.
1889. One year on from Jack the Ripper, a new killer stalks London’s streets… But he has not reckoned on Scotland Yard’s newly formed Murder Squad and the team of new-recruit Walter Day and the world first forensic pathologist, Dr Kingsley…
This isn’t Sherlock Holmes’s London, though. This is a far more visceral and frightening view of London from those bumping along the lower layers of the very rigid social strata – and it’s a great deal less cosy if you don’t have a bed for the night, or the money to get one. Grecian has clearly done his homework. With an unprecedented jump in the population of Great Britain and the industrial revolution in full swing, people were flocking to all the major cities. Provision for fresh water and sewerage were inadequate and housing insufficient making all the cities breeding places for disease and crime, which mostly went unchecked. And I’m not taking Grecian’s word for this – I happened to study this period in history for my degree and some of the grim statistics I’d gaped at then, now have become flesh and blood characters in this gritty read.
There are some familiar elements in this crime thriller. We have an idealistic newbie starting work with an overburdened, harried team whose new boss is causing concern because he’s taking far too much notice of what is happening in his department for the comfort of some of the more experienced detectives. There is a deranged killer with an innocent victim in his clutches, who regards Saucy Jack – the Ripper – as a role model. And a sullen, angry populace who feel let down because in their daily lives they don’t get protection from whatever the local villains feel like dishing out.
There are also flashes of dark humour in this twisting, adrenaline-fuelled story that help leaven the grim backdrop. My favourite character is Dr Kingsley, the hospital surgeon who encounters the stinking hole that went by the name of the City Morgue when looking for his dead wife – and single-handedly takes over the running of it. He is the one who starts examining bodies for clues and reads up on the latest papers, so begins to use shredded charcoal to take fingerprints to help identify potential murderers. I love his unshakeable faith in the power of science to put right the wrongs he sees around him and it certainly encapsulates the can-do spirit of the Victorian educated man.
The climax of the book is deftly handled, giving an entirely satisfactory ending to the various plotpoints weaving through the story, while leaving a couple of openings for the sequel. So will I be tracking down The Black Country? Oh yes – Alex Grecian’s historical crime series is a riveting, enjoyable read.