Source: Review Copy (British Library)
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Castle/Ruins
Once again the British Library have given me another opportunity to try out an author I have never read before. Death in the Tunnel (1936) is a train murder mystery, but before you panic it is not like Freeman Wills Crofts’ work where you have to wade through exacting train timetable related alibis. Instead this is a story where an old man called Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead (shot through the heart), alone in a train carriage, having travelled from London to Stourford. Based on the evidence death is likely to have occurred whilst the train was going through a tunnel, where unusually the train braked suddenly, due to the driver purportedly seeing a workman’s signal, despite the fact no works were planned and that neither of the signalman at either side of the tunnel saw anyone go inside it. Saxonby’s death is also a bit of a puzzle with much of the evidence pointing towards suicide, after all a gun with his initials on is found underneath his seat. Moreover, it would have been difficult for anyone to enter his compartment as one door faced a blank wall outside and the corridor door was locked by the rear guard man as Saxonby had asked to have the compartment to himself and this door was only opened when the train reached Stourford. Inspector Marton is convinced it is suicide, but due to Saxonby’s important position Inspector Arnold is called in from Scotland Yard, who sees a number of things which don’t add up if the case really is one of suicide such as the weapon used, a missing train ticket and perhaps most importantly of all a lack of a reason for committing suicide. Yet if it is murder, how was it done and who did it? Readers who enjoy locked room/ impossible crime mysteries will definitely like this novel where this aspect of the mystery is given ample attention.
Finding possible suspects is also hard for Inspector Arnold, as both Saxonby’s married children were out of the country at the time. Although being a high handed magistrate and local benefactor may have ruffled some feathers. However, help is at hand in the form of Desmond Merrion, amateur sleuth and good friend of Inspector Arnold. With Merrion’s ideas and suggestions, more evidence is revealed about the day of the murder. Yet what I liked about this though, was that the increasing amount of evidence does not unanimously point to murder and evaluating this evidence is an important task for both the reader and the detectives. It is fair to say the more you know about this mystery the more puzzling it becomes, even after the “how” of the murder has been figured out. I was quite pleased with myself that I worked out an important part of murder method, with Merrion following behind me by a few pages. In my opinion finding out who did it, is the hardest part of the case to solve as the guilty are adept at hiding traces of their identity well, throwing a lot of dust in the eyes of the Inspector and a good handful of red herrings and I think the reader is kept guessing as well for quite a long time in the novel.
Overall I think the strength of this novel is its’ puzzle factor and the way Inspector Arnold and Merrion go about deciphering the mystery, which is certainly an ingenious plot with wheels within wheels. Although characterisation is not a strong point for this novel, characters are not drawn in depth for instance, I found Arnold and Merrion an enjoyable team to follow and there are interesting humanising moments, created by characters having differences of opinion such as when Inspector Marden thinks ‘that this man from Scotland Yard was attaching undue importance to trifles. Sir Wilfred had shot himself, any fool could see that. What on earth did his ticket matter?’ I think what also makes this narrative more interesting to read, although very puzzle focused, is that Burton selects effectively which parts of the investigation to go into more detail with and which suspect interview readers should get to read in full, so that the parts of the investigation which really would be very boring to follow e.g. finding a specific shop or garage, are only mentioned in paraphrase. Moreover, I think the length of the story is also right for the style of the story, as if it was much longer the pace definitely would have suffered. The only main improvement I would suggest for this novel is that the part where the solution is revealed (although a clever one) needed to be more enlivened, as it does need reading slowly so you understand it. Although I do think Burton concludes this story on an interestingly eerie and unsettling tone, which intrigued me, as it did make me look back at the mystery again in another light.
Rating: 4/5 (Primarily because of the strong central puzzle and the process by which the solution is reached)