Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Partial Book Review: The Yard by Alex Grecian

Once again, I found a book I could not finish. This time, however, it was not from a disgust of the characters, nor of the story. The author’s style is not really that bad, but it has the fatal flaw of being mildly ADD.

The Yard (at the time I read it, not yet published, so it could certainly have been edited and improved by the time it hit booksellers) is about the newly formed Murder Squad of Scotland Yard dealing with the homicides of London. When one of their own is found murdered, they set out to find the killer and prove to the city they can keep the citizens safe.

It starts out with a bustling scene at King’s Cross station. Since this is historical, no wizards are found anywhere.

They do, however, find one of the twelve detectives assigned to homicide stuffed in a suitcase.

The newest detective is on the scene with Professor Kingsley, one of the first forensics nerds the world has seen. They make a thorough examination while people rubberneck and the other detectives and cops hang around, looking very awkward and uncomfortable.  The reputation of Scotland Yard is on the line, as they just failed in the recent Ripper investigation.

The story line diverges, as the Murder Squad try to find out who killed one of their own, and another detective goes on a crusade against a chimney sweep who let one of his young workers die in a chimney. Meanwhile, we get glimpses from the main villain’s point of view, and they are very terrifying.

The characters were written very well; all of them bustled with life and color. The setting was depicted well too; 19th century London is vivid in its underworld squalor. And the descriptions of early forensics work was fascinating. The problem began with the author’s attempts to pad out the story.

I say pad out, rather than add detail and life, because that is exactly what it felt like. The author felt the need to diverge into character back story, chapters at a time. This in and of itself is not bad. But what was told through mounds of back story had already more or less been told through the characters’ actions and thoughts. We already knew, for example, that Hammersmith was the son of a coal miner, and he was particularly sensitive about the plight of the city waifs. Yet right afterward we had an entire long chapter explaining his experiences in the coal mines, ending with what amounted to “and that’s why he didn’t like how children were treated”. It was unnecessarily repetitious. Again, with the protagonist, we hear rather constantly about how much he loves his wife but feels he cannot provide her with the life she had as the daughter of a wealthy couple. And yet, we then were treated to how they got together, though it had no bearing on the actual plot.

Characterization and back story are fine, but when it draws attention away from the actual dilemma of the novel, it becomes a mere distraction instead of added color.

To contrast, I’ll use an example from “Relic” by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child:

“The week before had been a write-off—the service for her father, the formalities, the phone calls. Now, she couldn’t lose any more time.”

That’s what introduces Margo Green’s side issue. It’s mentioned a few times through the book, but never overtakes the main plot. Chapter 11, which is the only chapter completely dedicated to Margo’s dilemma with her family, is approximately two pages long. Likewise, the authors have diverging plot lines, but they all tie in together and don’t distract from the main problem, adding rather than defusing tension.

Long novels are not always bad. But they aren’t always good either. Some great novels are also rather short (Relic being one of them). This is a particular focus with me because it is also my particular focus in my own writing. I have to actively work against the thought that “Oh no, this is way too short”. If it is well-written, it doesn’t matter.

As I said at the beginning, this is only an advanced copy I was able to read. I may check it out again to see if it has changed. Either way, this book simply was not my cup of tea.

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