Murder in Grub Street - Bruce Alexander (1995)

Murder in Grub Street is a "Sir John Fielding Mystery," set in 18th century London. Our narrator is a man recalling his service as a lad in the household of John Fielding, "the Blind Beak," a magistrate at Bow Street. It falls, therefore, into that loose sub-genre, the historical mystery.

Ironically, it is not really a mystery. From very nearly the outset, it is clear who the villain will be, and there are no real red herrings to speak of. Further, the conclusion is of a type which I find to be the least satisfying of all in the genre, the "we can't prove it, so we'll lay a trap," type of ending.

And yet ... it's a pretty good book. Reviewing this book hard on the heels of my recent review of The Forge of Mars, I found myself considering why I have such divergent opinions of the two. The answer, or part of it, lies in the question of setting. For a novel to be effective, the setting, the world if you will, must be believable. That is not to say that it must real, but that it must be consistent. On some level, it must make sense to us. The premise can be ludicrous, sparkly werewolves live in our kitchen cupboards, but we'll go along with it, until for no reason whatsoever all the werewolves suddenly become zombies. Even if they continue to sparkle.

That is where Grub Street succeeds and Forge of Mars fails. Alexander has an historical setting, but that doesn't mean his job is necessarily easier. In some ways, historical settings are more difficult to carry off effectively, since they must not openly contradict history. In the case of Grub Street even though the mystery is thin and the ending a bit cliché, the writing is evocative and draws you effectively into the world of the story. Even the lack of mystery qua mystery can be forgiven somewhat if you think of the story as a thriller rather than a puzzle.

Forgive me if I have rambled somewhat. The point of all this philosophy is to say that the Murder in Grub Street (and, for that matter the preceding book, Blind Justice) is an entertaining and well-written book, that captures the feel of a time and place at some remove from our own. The characters are engaging, and if the plotting is more thriller than mystery there are far worse crimes.

Overall Grade: B+

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