Solving crime by The Yard

Filed in Crime-Mystery by on April 25, 2013 0 Comments

The Yard - Alex Grecian

Did London create Jack the Ripper, or did Jack create London? This age-old ‘nature versus nurture’ debate is one of the fundamental themes which powers Alex Grecian’s outstanding novel The Yard.
It’s 1889, and London is reeling from the recent onslaught (and escape) by one of history’s first celebrity mass murderers – the aforementioned ‘Jack the Ripper’. Citizens are fearful, the police look inept, and society is struggling to regain a semblance of respectability.

Jack is seemingly long gone. Yet when a police detective’s mutilated corpse is discovered on a train platform squashed into a travelling chest, the question is immediately asked – has ‘Saucy Jack’ returned?

Scotland Yard’s new Murder Squad is suddenly in a race against time to find the murderer and to salvage public respect before more of their number fall victim to this new predator.

The Yard is a wonderful read. A high-quality (and gory) Victorian-era whodunnit, if you had to use one word to describe the book’s theme, it would be ‘trauma’. Jack the Ripper has had his way with London, and this book examines the effects and aftermath of his traumatic reign of terror and death on the city, its society and its inhabitants. Has London become a city of death? Whatever the case, it will never be the same.

While it is a great read, The Yard is not a ‘fun’ book. I like to have a bit of fun with my reviews and throw in some (completely relevant) slapstick, but I found it quite hard to do with this novel. The Yard is a very sombre read – it’s just really hard to make a gag about Jack the Ripper. However, Victorian England is another question – but I promise to try to avoid the low-hanging fruit, such as in this gratuitous self promoting link.

“We had a monster and we couldn’t catch him. Now how many monsters are there? It’s not just the Ripper any more. Something’s changed in this city and everyone knows it. They’re all scared, everybody out there’s scared, and it’s more than we can deal with.” (Page 214)

The Yard - Alex GrecianDeath and fear (and how people react to these themes) seems to influence everyone and everything in the book. For example, one of the more likeable protagonists in The Yard is Dr Kingsley, a pathologist (a doctor of death). His wife died of tuberculosis years ago, so what is his strategy for helping his teenaged daughter deal with the loss of her mother? He lets her help him during his autopsies. (I guess it’s lucky for her that her father didn’t specialise in proctology, but I digress.) The daughter’s acceptance of her life revolving around fresh corpses is a nice analogy of London learning to live with its post-Jack legacy.

Grecian explores this idea of people adopting a more modern attitude to death in a number of ways. Early in the book when the first police detective’s body is discovered on a crowded railway station, onlookers care less about the fact that a murder has been committed than just wanting to be a part of the proceedings. It’s as if the murder defines them and gives them legitimacy by its very proximity – like being an audience member at a Victorian-era reality TV show.

“Whether he was gone or not, it hardly mattered. Saucy Jack had gifted them all the idea of himself. Others like him circled like lions around the herd. The city was changed.” (Page 151)

Another common theme in The Yard is an unspoken acknowledgement that something had fundamentally gone wrong with society, something which people tacitly accepted even as they resisted the need for change. The first step was to reform the police.

Throughout the book Grecian debates the role that the police should play in society, and how it must change to meet new challenges. Are police there to help people in need or are they there simply to ‘uphold the law’? Should it be a police service or a police force? Do cops prefer doughnuts or beer? It’s a debate which is still relevant today – and best of all, The Yard forces the reader to take a side. (doughnuts!)

“Day grimaced. It was another reminder that the man on the street had no great love for the police. There was too much crime that went on unstopped and no one felt safe. Everyone in London knew that the Ripper was still out there in the fog and that the police were helpless to stop him.” (Page 36)

Now I’m no expert, but Victorian era seems to be getting a bit of a bum rap to me. Sure, it had its dark moments, such as the world’s first concentration camps, workhouses for the poor, the ‘white man’s burden’, the growing popularity of tennis, and Winston Churchill’s early years. But we must always remember the positives as well – the telephone, coca cola made with cocaine… oh, and the invention of the mechanical vibrator, just to name a few.

Deft touches

When it comes to his writing style, Grecian has a few nice touches. Firstly, while his main characters receive relatively little description upon introduction, what flavour text they do get focuses more upon mannerisms than appearance. For example:

“A tall, lanky constable looked up from the side of the platform where he seemed to be scanning the crowd. His eyes were bright and intelligent and nearly hidden behind long, feminine lashes. He jumped slightly at the sound of Kingsley’s voice.” (Page 6)

With most character descriptions in the book, Grecian sketches the personality and quirks, not the character’s actual appearance, and leaves the rest for you to fill in. This is a really effective method of engaging the reader, bringing to life a living, breathing character far more efficiently and effectively than the author could ever do himself.

By contrast, The Yard features much longer and more in-depth descriptions of settings and background, boasting a profusion of detail, colour and life.

“The main room on the ground floor was segmented. To Day’s right as he left the hallway was the largest and most accessible section. It housed most of the detectives of the Metropolitan Police Force, along with numerous constables, all of whom hurried in and out, day and night, struggling to deal with wearying numbers of cases involving burglary, assault, prostitution, missing persons and muggings.”

As an aside, Grecian has previously worked on graphic novels. I wonder if this background manifests itself in his work – is it perhaps because the character’s appearance is largely determined by the artist, while the author creates the backdrop? I’m not sure myself. My last attempt at drawing something almost ended with my fourth-grade teacher in stitches.

Page 21 features another description of a finely detailed environment – however this one actually helps create the character in our mind, without ever having met him.

‘Inside, Sir Edward’s office was small and dim, crowded with heavy furniture. A stuffed tiger’s head, the only souvenir on display of Sir Edward’s time in India, was mounted on the wall behind the desk.”

Here, I think Grecian poses the question ‘are we just a product of our environment?’ Is the city of London itself responsible for the corruption/perversion of people and of contemporary 19th century society, or are individuals always the creators of culture? Let me ask you – did Hollywood mold Arnold, or did Arnold shape Hollywood?

Corpses get some love… erm, you know what I mean

I think it’s also very telling that in contrast to living characters, corpses and murder victims (of which there are many) receive extensive descriptions.

“The back of the corpse was bruised a deep purple, mottled with black around a ring of pale white where the body had rested against the bottom of the trunk. Already the sheet covering the examining table was sticky with old blood.” (Page 189-190)

Does Grecian consider his ‘victims’ the real stars of the book? Is it his way of giving them their own semblance of life?  Does he own shares in a company which manufactures anti-nausea drugs? Or maybe Grecian is doing it for effect – is he trying to replicate in the reader the reactions of the characters who are encountering this type of brutal crime for the first time… a method of generating empathy in characters who otherwise don’t have many intrinsic redeeming features?

“His nose was a huge misshapen beetroot and the skin around his eyes was deep purple with flecks of yellow fading into the flesh of his cheeks. His face had puffed up to double its normal size and resembled a bad cheese.”

It’s an almost obscene level of detail – and Grecian seems to revel in it (as do I). At the risk of turning this review into a novel itself, here’s another one.

“Liza rolled over and traced her fingers lightly down the length of Esme’s scar. The puckered red line began under Esme’s hair and ran diagonally across her forehead, jumped over her left eye and exploded in a starburst on her cheek before commencing down over her chin, her throat and disappearing under the top of Esme’s loose-fitting nightgown. The endpoint of the scar was a crater where Esme’s left breast had once been.”

One thing The Yard does very well is examine the power bestowed by a person’s name. While on the whole The Yard’s bit-part characters aren’t given full names, even a whisper of ‘Jack the Ripper’ mortifies anyone in the vicinity.

‘ “One more thing….”

Sir Edward hesitated and Day braced himself for the question that he knew he was coming, the question that had plagued his own thoughts since he’d looked down at Little’s mutilated body.

“Is it him?” Sir Edward asked.


Day knew who ‘him’ was, but didn’t want to be the one to say it out aloud.

“Is it Jack? Is it the Ripper again?” ‘ (Page 27)

This hesitation by people to put a name to their greatest fear not only demonstrates the power implicit in a name, but represents the whole city’s reticence to ask the question, to know the truth about itself, and to acknowledge that ‘Saucy Jack’ had  changed things have forever. I myself know the fear that a name can evoke; Evil Otto, SnookiePsy. (Shudder)

Tasty turtle

The Yard - Alex GrecianGrecian has added a real sense of legitimacy to his book by not skimping on his research. He touches on everything from a Victorian-era predilection for turtle meat (urgh) to the habit of adding copper to used tea leaves so that they ‘regained’ their taste and could be reused.

Actually, as I type it’s just occurred to me –Grecian has done a very clever thing with the whole ‘copper tea’ thing. Even though the copper added some flavour back into the tea leaves, it is made very clear that the recycled drink tasted awful and was not a real substitute for the real thing. Now, do you know what a slang name for police is? ‘Copper’. Is Grecian implying that any attempt to recycle or rejuvenate the (post-Jack the Ripper) police force may look good on the surface, but that it will fail the taste test? Only fresh new leaves (new detectives) will do the trick.

So, I opened this review with a question – did London create Jack the Ripper, or did Jack create London? The answer is both. Or neither.

“The Ripper had been busy, Saucy Jack had not stopped with those five women. Or started with them. Jack was London itself and London had always been a killer.”


The Yard

The Yard

Genre: Crime - Mystery
ISBN: 9780718176686

Did London create Jack the Ripper, or did Jack create London? This age-old ‘nature versus nurture’ debate is one of the fundamental themes which powers Alex Grecian’s outstanding novel The Yard.

About the Book

1889, LONDON.

Victorian London—a violent cesspool of squalid depravity. Only twelve detectives—The Murder Squad—are expected to solve the thousands of crimes committed here each month. Formed after the Metropolitan Police’s spectacular failure in capturing Jack the Ripper, the Murder Squad suffers the brunt of public contempt. But no one can anticipate the brutal murder of one of their own…

(Summary from Amazon)


Please read my review of The Yard!

Look Inside
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About the Author ()

Nick Buchan is currently writing his first novel ‘Leopard Tree’, available 2015. “A burnt-out police detective becomes embroiled in a child murder investigation while on African safari. Will this case send Detective Duffy over the edge?” Follow ‘Leopard Tree’ online at or

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