Blood on the tracks

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“Never had I been given a tougher problem to solve, and never had I been so utterly at my wits’ end for a solution.”

A signalman is found dead by a railway tunnel. A man identifies his wife as a victim of murder on the underground. Two passengers mysteriously disappear between stations, leaving behind a dead body.

Trains have been a favourite setting of many crime writers, providing the mobile equivalent of the “locked-room” scenario. Their enclosed carriages with a limited number of suspects lend themselves to seemingly impossible crimes. In an era of cancellations and delays, alibis reliant upon a timely train service no longer ring true, yet the railway detective has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the twenty-first century.

Both train buffs and crime fans will delight in this selection of fifteen railway-themed mysteries, featuring some of the most popular authors of their day alongside less familiar names. This is a collection to beguile even the most wearisome commuter.

Rating: C+

I have to say I love the sentence “In an era of cancellations and delays, alibis reliant upon a timely train service no longer ring true”. Clearly, nobody has been hit harder by the decline of the railways than poor mystery writers who have lost such a great plot-device…

While one might think that ‘railway related mysteries’ limits the type of stories one can include in this book there is some variety. In many cases, they are simply a sub-set of locked-room mysteries: somebody (or something) disappeared from a moving train (but the how is different every time). Sometimes the train provides the murder-method (or the means of masking the murder) and sometimes the train is mere coincidence (The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face opens in a train but the actual crime had been committed somewhere else and was in no way connected to a train or the railway).

Of course, the stories also vary in quality. No matter how popular railway mysteries were, not every writer did his best work in (short) railway fiction. (Sayer’s story is nowhere near as brilliant as her long fiction). My personal preferences also play a role (I’m not a big fan of mysteries told from the POV of the killer. Or of occult detectives).

Arthur Conan Doyle – The Man with the Watches ☹

Between two stops three passengers disappear without a trace and a dead body turns up. Many try to explain this but all of their attempts are quickly debunked. It takes years until an unexpected letter throws light on the mystery.

I know I’m now adding a few more spins to the anyway constant spinning ACD does in his grave but it’s hard to not compare his other stories to his most famous creation. Especially when a comparison offers itself up so obviously: in Holmes stories, it was occasionally brought up that legal/illegal and morally right/wrong are not always the same thing and Holmes does sometimes let somebody get away with a crime or shows his disapproval of someone who did nothing illegal. Well, and this story makes a judgment call along those lines but unlike in the Holmes stories, I disagree with it. Also, there is no genius detective…or any kind of detective who follows clues…just a guy who witnessed the crime and who writes a letter explaining what happened.

L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace – The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel 😐

A man is found dead in a railway tunnel and the case seems clear-cut: he’d gotten engaged the day before and his fiancee also had a second admirer who threatened revenge. But when another body turns up it becomes obvious that there is more to it. John Bell, a ‘wealthy skeptic and exposer of ghosts’ gets called in to consult on the case.

There isn’t much to say about this story because Bell remains rather colourless throughout. He follows the clues, he solves the case but nothing he does or says makes him stick out. The mystery itself is the similar: nice and somewhat intriguing but not overwhelming. If I come across another John Bell story I’ll read it but I won’t go out looking for one.

Matthias McDonnel Bodkin – How He Cut His Stick ❤

A bank clerk is tasked to transport a huge sum of money across the country. Even though he is locked into a train compartment he gets attacked and the money stolen. The police suspect that he himself is involved. Dora Myrl has another idea.

The plot itself is nothing special: a variation on a locked room mystery with a slightly outlandish solution. The distinguishing feature of this story is the female detective. And even more so the fact that it’s not made a big deal. When the clerk’s boss comes to her because he’s worried that the police have reached their conclusion to quickly he doesn’t question he qualification (and neither do the police). Dora then does all the sleuthing on her own, sets up the trap for the bad guy and then threatens him with her gun to make sure that he doesn’t run away. Her (temporary) male assistant with a Rugby player physique is needed because she can’t tie up the villain and keep him in check with the gun at the same time.

I don’t think I’ve read any story from that era (by male or female writers) that treat female sleuths in such a way. And after I already enjoyed Bodkin’s Inspector Beck-stories  I’m now even more convinced to read more by him.

Baroness Orczy – The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway ☹

All Polly wants is have lunch in peace, when a random stranger – the old man in the corner – suddenly demands that she should describe a man who has been sitting next to her and has now left. When she fails the random stranger laments the unreliability of eyewitnesses and how they are the reason a murderer went free. Then he tells her about the case in question and how only he knows the truth (but has no proof, hence the murderer remains free).

You might notice that I am not a big fan of Baroness Orczy. Even though The Scarlett Pimpernell is a fun story, I always have a hard time with how stupid the female characters in it are. Her The Old Man in the Corner stories aren’t much better. And while this isn’t the worst of the lot, I just can’t deal with the Old Man’s condescension.

Victor L. Whitechurch – The Affair of the Corridor Express 😐

A boy disappears during a train journey. His teacher immediately alerts the conductor and they search every corner of the still moving train. There is no way he could have left a train driving at that speed but he is nowhere to be found. The teacher goes to ask Thorpe Hazel for help ‘a train enthusiast, who was regularly consulted by railway companies about the bewildering task of altering their timetables’ (and doesn’t he sound like a fun person to be around?)

Similarly to The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel, this story has an average detective solving a not very outstanding mystery. The difference is that I couldn’t help thinking about how in real life this child would have been severely traumatized by the events but in the story just went ‘Jolly-ho thanks for finding me, bye’. And this is perhaps unfair – many mysteries are more about the puzzle than the people and few authors included things like trauma in their stories. But the severity of it, combined with the fact that it’s about a child made it hard for me to forget it.

R. Austin Freeman – The Case of Oscar Brodski 😃

Silas is a thief but not a murderer. That is until chance brings a diamond merchant with a valuable quarry right to his doorstep. The murder doesn’t quite go as planned but Silas knows how to improvise. So he has gotten away with it – or has he? Thorndyke finds a few things Silas has missed.

Freeman claims this is the first ‘inverted’ crime story i.e. where the reader knows everything and the detective nothing. I’m not sure if that is really true but I was impressed by the psychology. At first, the focus isn’t so much on Silas plan but on his inner fight – should he let the man go or should he kill him, steal the diamonds and have enough money to retire? I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s making the killer sympathetic but he doesn’t paint him as a pure villain, either.

The second part of the story is a normal Thorndyke-story with lots of focus on real science, which is something you either enjoy or you don’t. (I do enjoy it).

Roy Vickers – The Eight Lamp ☹

A railway worker keeps seeing a train that shouldn’t be there. He doesn’t dare to talk to his superiors about it for fear of being thought crazy. But the train keeps appearing.

This is more a ghost-story than a mystery. But the atmosphere was rather dull and ‘ordinary’ so that I kept expecting a mundane explanation for the events and felt rather dumbfounded at the final reveal.

Ernest Bramah – The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem ☹

A train-crash leaves more than 30 people dead. The cause seems to be a human error: the train-driver swears the signal light was green, the signalman swears it was red. While trying to figure out who is lying Carrados soon discovers that much more sinister forces are at play.

I already knew this story from a different anthology and didn’t like it back then. This hasn’t changed. It’s a story about scary brown people…

Dorothy L. Sayers – The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face 😃

On a train-journey, three strangers who share a carriage find themselves discussing the recent murder of a man whose face has been cut up so badly that identification has been impossible so far. One of the strangers has some ideas how the victim might be identified and also offers an explanation for the other curious facts of the case, like the fact that there were only the victim’s footprints on the scene.

Spoiler: the stranger’s name begins with a P and ends with eter Wimsey. The dear reader figures that out pretty quickly but still has to suffer through several pages in which he is only called ‘the first class passenger’. The other passengers are also only called by some epithet relating to their appearance that I began having flashbacks to all the fanfiction with ‘the tall man looked at the dark-haired man’. In fairness to Sayers, she sticks to one description but I still found that harder to remember than actual names so I had a hard time keeping up.

Apart from that this is one of those detective stories where the detective does (nearly) no detecting. Wimsey is just so brilliant that he figures everything out (almost) on the spot and these stories make me roll my eyes a lot. But it’s still a Lord Peter Wimsey story and it’s hard not to like him 😉

F. Tennyson Jesse – The Railway Carriage ☹

Two mysterious traveling companions wake Solange Fontaine’s ‘spiritual intuition’. Something has to be wrong with them, she is sure of that. Then tragedy strikes and the story turns into an unexpected direction.

Solange is an occult detective. Meaning that a) this story has supernatural elements and b) our detective has…well…spiritual intuition that tells her that something is wrong. No boring observing of her surroundings and putting things together. She knows because magic which doesn’t make for a particularly interesting approach to detecting – no matter if ghosts are involved or not.

Sapper – Mystery of the Slip-Coach 😃

A man is found shot in a locked railway carriage. The murderer has to be one of the people traveling in the same carriage. But why is there a cracked raw egg lying next to him? The inspector who investigates the case wants to dismiss it but Ronald Standish is convinced that it’s the key to the mystery.

A very Holmesian mystery with a sleuth who isn’t quite as eccentric but also with a solution that is even more absurd than some Holmes-stories. It’s still a fun story and the first of the previously unknown authors in this collection I want to check out.

Freeman Wills Crofts – The Level Crossing ☹

Dunstan Thwaite decides that five years of blackmail are enough. He is going to stop John Dunn who has been after him for so long and demanding more and more.

I am not a big fan of crime stories written from the POV of the murderer. I enjoyed the Austin Freeman story in this book that did it because it managed to make the killer still interesting. Besides, it was fun trying to figure out what kind of mistakes he was making while trying to cover up his crime. But the killer in The Level Crossing was a just deeply unpleasant person I didn’t care about. So even though the victim was also deeply unpleasant, I couldn’t bring myself to care, or secretly wish that he succeeds and gets away with it.

Ronald Knox – The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage ☹

A maid visits Sherlock Holmes and tells him about the tensions between the couple she works for and how she fears for the husband’s life. Holmes wants to contact the man but he disappears without a trace during a train journey.

I don’t doubt that this author loved Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, that alone doesn’t make a good pastiche-writer. First, we get two pages that consist mainly of Watson mentioning a number of cases that sound appropriately Holmesian (like The Tattooed Nurseryman) but then saying that he’s not going to talk about those now. In the actual story, Holmes’s deductive powers are only used to explain that the maid must be an interesting person because of the way she writes her j’s and w’s in the letter she sent Holmes.

Michael Innes – Murder on the 7.16 😃

There has been a murder on a train. Or rather a fake train that has been part of a film set. The body, however, is undoubtedly real.

This story was too short to say anything more than ‘that was fun’. It’s only a few pages and perhaps you get more out of this story if you know Inspector Appleby better but since I never met him before he remained distant.

Michael Gilbert – The Coulman Handicap 😐

The police are on the trail of a woman who sells stolen goods. But when they try to follow her to the person who’s behind it all she suddenly vanishes into thin air.

I enjoyed this story. Surveillance doesn’t always make for the most thrilling reading but the author pulled it off really well. And while I had a suspicion about part of the solution it didn’t take away much. If only it hadn’t been for the ending. You see the women is German and it’s mentioned that she’s been part of the resistance against the Nazis and had never been caught. When the police discuss the case at the end we are treated to this gem:

You’ll never beat a German at their own game. Look at the Gestapo. They tried for five years and even they couldn’t pull it off. The one thing they lacked was imagination. Perhaps it was a good thing. A little imagination, and they might have caused a lot more bother.

Because, famously, the Gestapo wasn’t much of a bother for anybody…

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