Book Review – The Black Country by Alex Grecian

book cover - black countryAfter finishing The Yard a few months ago, I quickly put the rest of the books in Alex Grecian’s Scotland Yard Murder Squad series on my To Read list with the intent that I pace myself rather than read them all at once. It will be easier to wait before moving on from The Black Country, the second book in the series. Though the characters that helped make the series’ first installment so thrilling are still present, something of the magic is missing in book two.

Inspector Walter Day and Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith have been called away from London to assist the constable in Blackhampton—a coalmining town—with the search for two parents and their missing son. The inclement weather (a late season snowstorm) promises to be the least of the obstacles impeding the investigation. The people of Blackhampton are falling ill left and right and those who are well want little to do with the out-of-town law enforcement. Everyone seems to know more than they are willing to share leaving Day and Hammersmith with no one to trust but each other.

Because I read the two books on very different formats I can’t tell for sure but The Black Country felt much shorter than The Yard—it also felt less developed, less insightful. There wasn’t as much of a puzzle to be solved with various people unwittingly having pieces of it so much as just Day and Hammersmith trying to unravel a weird conspiracy that they were inserted into—it wasn’t that they had to go searching for the pieces, they just had to wait, coax, or trick the answers out of the people who had them. The multiple plot threads didn’t fit together as comfortably in this book as those in the first book did, leaving it all feeling more contrived. The characters that were so well established in the first book—Day, Hammersmith, and Dr. Kingsley—had almost no further development at the character level. The most that was present was Day who in dealing with the children in the case also briefly addresses his own thoughts regarding his impending fatherhood.

Where in the first book the periodic glimpses into the central killer’s mind provide an intriguing perspective and give insight into just how far the investigation has progressed, the insights into key characters working at cross purposes to Day and Hammersmith in this book don’t function nearly as effectively. Where those sections in the first book very closely related to the central characters, here they’re used more to illuminate past events that very tangentially factor into what is happening in Blackhampton—they give enough development to paint a vague picture of what’s happened without giving enough detail to really invest in any of the characters or their motivations (and they’re all centered on what I felt was the less interesting of the two narrative threads at play; I would much rather have had more glimpses into the perspectives of the Price children, particularly Anna and Peter).

The situational setting of the story with the snowstorm and the mining town where everything seems to be sinking into the old tunnels added to the frantic pacing of the novel but I don’t think it was a productive (or necessary) addition. It made the back and forth of everyone’s movements that much more noticeable and therefore, more repetitive and tedious. Having one element or the other might have been suitably effective but having both was overkill.

Ultimately, The Black Country, while a suitable follow-up to The Yard, struggles to strike the balance between established characters and a “foreign” setting. I hope that book three in the series will see our characters return to London and further individual development.

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