Monday, May 20, 2013

Pierce’s Picks: “Black Country”

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

The Black Country, by Alex Grecian (Putnam):
I was fond enough of Midwestern novelist Alex Grecian’s premiere Murder Squad tale, The Yard, that I chose it as one of the top crime novels of 2012. Naturally, my expectations of its sequel were high. Although The Black Country lacks some of the attractions of its predecessor, it still secures Grecian standing as somebody whose work is well worth following.

This sophomore outing for Inspector Walter Day of Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad opens in the spring of 1890. Day and his rather eccentric associate, Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith, have been dispatched to the beleaguered coal-mining village of Blackhampton, in the British Midlands, from which three members of the Price family have gone missing. Concerns about their fate have only been heightened by a child’s recent discovery--in a tree’s upper branches, of all places--of an eyeball. As if these factors didn’t make the case weird enough, a seeming plague has struck the town, the foundations of houses and other buildings there have been undermined by aged mine shafts, and a gruesomely disfigured stranger appears to be lurking in the vicinity. Being a superstitious lot, Blackhampton residents take these turns with some equanimity; but Day and Hammersmith want answers and aren’t willing to leave villagers with any secrets unexcavated. As the village is slowly swallowed by the earth, Hammersmith is struck down by the advancing plague and a long-festering vengeance threatens to trim Blackhampton’s population still further.

The Yard made excellent use of its London backdrop and the displeasure Victorian-era Londonders exhibited toward Scotland Yard, which had failed to protect them from Jack the Ripper, the city’s deadly scourge of 1888. The rural setting of The Black Country proves less captivating (and reminds me overmuch of Charles Todd’s better-known Inspector Ian Rutledge novels). And though Day’s colleague, progressive pathologist Dr. Bernard Kingsley, eventually rolls into Blackhampton to aid in sorting out the mysteries at hand (together with his dim but endearing assistant, Henry Mayhew), the absence of other Scotland Yarders and the police-procedural atmosphere they helped impart to The Yard is keenly felt in these pages. I hope that by their third adventure, Grecian’s gang of colorful historical crime-solvers will have found their way back among the belching smokestacks and ribald underworld corners of the British capital.

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New in stores as well is Reed Farrel Coleman’s Onion Street (Tyrus), which winds back the clock for series protagonist Moe Prager. We see him here in 1967, when he was still a college student, feeling lost in his own life and struggling to figure out who beat his girlfriend and left her to die in Brooklyn. ... Meanwhile, the celebrated Charles McCarry offers us The Shanghai Factor (The Mysterious Press), about an American spy in Shanghai, whose recent, heated affair with a young woman may leave him vulnerable as he tries to discern the secrets of China’s seemingly impregnable new intelligence agency.

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