Title: The Black Country (Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad)
Author: Alex Grecian
Narrator: Toby Leonard Moore
Audiobook Length: 10 hours, 4 minutes
Origins: Penguin Audio
Release Date: 21 May 2013
Bottom Line: Mediocre story and miserable audiobook
“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…”
Thoughts: A detective novel is only as the main detective and his (or her) sidekicks. While Inspector Day is dedicated, professional, and devoted to his wife, he never moves beyond those attributes to something more three-dimensional. All of the characters follow a similar fate. Hammersmith is the loyal (to a fault) and seemingly superhuman physical assistant to Inspector Day’s intuitive action. Dr. Kingsley is the genius brain behind the three-man operation, using cutting-edge science and deductions to find clues where none may be clearly seen. While they may work together, they never mesh into a true team. Each remains fixed in the narrow scenario drawn for them by their individual titles and professions. Without a strong detective to entertain through seemingly magical abilities of deductive reasoning, the story falls flat.
Alex Grecian’s The Black Country improves slightly with its descriptions of the coal-mining village in question and its inhabitants. The cliché that nothing is as it seems is unfortunately too well-used to be remotely interesting, but Mr. Grecian overcomes this deficiency with the idea that his village is sinking back into the mines. The unstable ground that can (and does) collapse at any point in time is an intriguing bit of history and is one of the few plot points that creates genuine interest. The rest of the village remains a conventional coal-mining village with its distrusting inhabitants that withhold secrets from any strangers with only a few bright individuals to lighten the dismal atmosphere of the novel.
The story itself is okay but does not stand up well to large amounts of scrutiny. Inspector Day and Sergeant Hammersmith, along with Dr. Kingsley, make for an interesting trio as they attempt to ingratiate themselves with the suspicious villagers in order to uncover clues to the whereabouts of the missing family and the origins of the eyeball. The story also has a major subplot regarding one of the minor character’s past during the American Civil War, which is supposed to add a level of danger to the proceedings. Other than the flashbacks pertaining to the Civil War experiences, the story unfolds linearly, and there are no red herrings or other misleading clues to throw a reader off of the scent of the truth before Mr. Grecian is ready to reveal it. It is a decent story but by no means a stellar one.
While The Black Country is a passable story, it makes for a fairly miserable audiobook experience. As narrator, Toby Leonard Moore deftly handles the multiple English dialects and accents which distinguish not only social class but also relatively small geographical areas. Where he fails to impress, however, is in his cadence. His speaking pattern is too slow, so slow in fact that a listener will either lose interest, zone out, or fall asleep. It can be quite excruciating in the first half of the novel, as Mr. Grecian sets up the story. It improves only slightly once the action starts. Mysteries usually make for excellent audiobooks, but thanks in part to the narrator, The Black Country makes for a better print version.