The first Alex Grecian novel I read happened by chance. I was going through someone’s Goodreads list and came across ‘The Yard’, read the summary and thought I would give it a chance. I liked it enough to look out for any other novels by the author in the same series and to my luck came across ‘The Black Country’.
According to the blurb on Goodreads about The Black Country…
The British Midlands. It’s called the “Black Country” for a reason. Bad things happen there.When members of a prominent family disappear from a coal-mining village – and a human eyeball is discovered in a bird’s nest – the local constable sends for help from Scotland Yard’s new Murder Squad. Fresh off the grisly 1889 murders of The Yard, Inspector Walter Day and Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith respond, but they have no idea what they’re about to get into. The villagers have intense, intertwined histories. Everybody bears a secret. Superstitions abound. And the village itself is slowly sinking into the mines beneath it.Not even the arrival of forensics pioneer Dr. Bernard Kingsley seems to help. In fact, the more the three of them investigate, the more they realize they may never be allowed to leave….
As usual the cover of the book was appealing to me and reminiscent of the fog lit streets of late 1800’s London which is currently my favorite period in fiction. The village in the novel is bleak, dark, unwelcoming and gray in winter. And it has houses that are sinking into the old mines below them. I feel a shudder up my spine even trying to imagine living in a house that is apparently sinking into the ground below. And worse, what do you do when there is no other option. When there is no money to move out because nobody is likely to pay you a dime for a hole in the ground. Imagine trying to raise a family in that completely helpless and dangerous way. No wonder the villagers are unhappy and not best pleased with the Londoner.
I thought Inspector Walter Day shows admirable people skills when dealing with the mostly hostile and suspicious witnesses around him. He is even successful with the little stubborn and willful children. His relationship with his wife is somewhat difficult to understand. They love each other deeply and yet are not comfortable with each other. They try to hide their fears and their insecurities from each other and plod on politely, trying to please and not really sure about how to go about it. There is a formality to the relationship which is probably a product of the times. Day is affected by the horrors he comes across on the job but is still fresh enough from the country to have a huge dollop of idealism and honesty to see him through. It is to be hoped that he will not grow too despondent with time and with the love of his pretty, delicate and intelligent wife.
Sergeant Hammersmith is another funny character. Funny in the inexplicable, crazy sense. He is a loner, short-tempered and one for taking the bull by the horns. His tendency to rush headlong into whatever comes in his way seems to lead him into a lot of scraps, though there is always Day to bail him out. And yet he is a likable person. The big, bad boy you always thought you could save from himself. He has horrible people skills and seems especially oblivious around women. And lets not forget the children.
Dr. Bernard Kingsley and his daughter are also major characters as they make appearances to help the inquiry along. Dr Kingsley’s 15-year-old daughter is in love with Hammersmith, as far as I can read into the novels. She used to act as the illustrator for her father’s forensic work before moving in with Inspector Day’s wife as companion when Dr. Kingsley realized that the morgue wasn’t exactly the most conducive environment for a growing, motherless young lady. It will be interesting to see how her infatuation with Hammersmith progresses in the series.
The author paints such a vivid picture of the scenery that the village inn with the huge tree leaning over it seems something that the reader has actually seen somewhere. The sinking houses was a terrifying touch to the already spooky atmosphere of an abandoned coal town with miles and miles of tunnels running all through the ground under one’s feet in bleakest winter. The story itself was engrossing and complex enough to keep the reader interested and hooked to the book. The superstitions of the villagers were cleverly incorporated and perfectly believable; at least to an Indian where our own long list of everyday superstitions are hard to ignore. The villagers are quick to point out omens of death to the outsiders in an effort to warn or rattle them. The relationship between the disappeared family members and those left behind is complex and a bit convoluted in the beginning. Though of course, in the end it is all cleared up. The climax of the book though seemed too ‘Bollywood’ like to me but it was gripping enough nonetheless. The general atmosphere of gloominess in the novel stays till the very end of the book and seems to be perfect for the kind of story the author had in mind.
The book is a fun read and strongly recommended to lovers of historical/ crime/ British fiction.