The novel takes place shortly after the failure of Scotland Yard to capture Jack the Ripper, and the police are dispirited, while the public has grown scornful of them. The body of Detective Little turns up in a trunk at Euston Square Station. Detective Inspector Walter Day is put in charge of the investigation to the surprise of everyone, as he is new to the force.
We are not left in ignorance of the identity of Little’s murderer, as he is watching the case from the sidelines. He didn’t intend to murder anyone, but Little discovered his secret. Soon another officer stumbles onto his secret and also must be killed.
Constable Hammersmith is assigned to the case, but he becomes embroiled in another incident. A thief breaking into a house finds the body of a boy stuck in the chimney and stops Hammersmith on the street to tell him about it. Directed by his superiors to concentrate on the more important case of Detective Little’s murder–the death of a chimney sweep’s boy not being considered a crime–Hammersmith continues to search for the sweep on his own time.
Another case is preoccupying Inspector Blacker. Some men have been found murdered with their beards newly shaven. Blacker thinks it is unlikely that two serial killers are loose in London at the same time, but Day and Dr. Kingsley, the coroner who is interested in new forensics research, do not agree.
This first series book sets the stage for all the recurring characters as well as attempts to recreate the chaos of the Yard. I feel it is spread a bit thin. The writing is capable rather than brilliant, although I encountered enough clichés in the first few pages to irritate me. A technique used several times of flashing back to explain something right in the middle of the action seems very disruptive and only serves to stall the flow.
Some unlikely events disturbed me as well. That two police officers would stumble onto the killer’s secret in the space of two days seems completely far-fetched. A minor incident where a family claims to have made a day trip to Birmingham seems equally absurd. I can’t imagine even in these days that a trip from London to Birmingham and back would be something anyone would want to do in one day, but back then the trains were surely slower. Such a trip may have been possible, but that the police officers receiving this information don’t challenge it seems absurd.
Almost despite myself I found myself beginning to like the major characters, but I still don’t think I’ll be picking up the second book anytime soon.