This is my latest foray into translated crime fiction, trying out an author new to me. The Sleeping-Car Murders (1962) was also adapted for film three years after it was published. Within a couple of pages we have our first corpse, that of divorcee Georgette Thomas, who is found strangled, oddly enough in a sleeping car of a train, which has just pulled into Paris. Corpses on trains was already a well-established trope in mystery fiction by this point, from Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), to Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands (1952), Miles Burton’s Death in a Tunnel (1936), M. M. Kaye’s Death in Berlin (1955) and Todd Downings’ Murder on Tour (1933). Though in fact I think Japrisot owes a debt to a completely different Christie novels. Hopefully those who have already read this book will know which Christie book I am referring to.
What I think makes Japrisot’s novel stand out though, is the fact that the train passengers are not separate compartments and the murdered woman is found within a compartment which held 5 other berths. It is assumed that her death took place soon after the train arrived in Paris and that one of the other five passengers did the deed. Though the police investigation, run by Grazzi also looks into the life of Georgette, given the number of lovers she had. However, once the names of the other passengers comes available the narrative switches its attention to them for a time and in fact our first impressions of the victim come from one of these passengers, Rene Cabourg. Japrisot adopts a narrative style which is reminiscent of stream of consciousness and free indirect discourse which means we quickly get into the minds of the characters, especially the other train passengers. Cabourg has conflicting emotions towards Georgette, having been attracted to her yet rebuffed. Amid a clear case of man flu he offers information to the police, yet conceals an argument he has from her. With such an unusual narrative style the reader soon begins to wonder how reliable our narrators are. I didn’t hugely take to Cabourg. Yet this is not a big issue for one good reason. Within pages of meeting him he too dies, a bullet to the neck and he is gone, an incident the reader knows about much earlier than the police.
However, the police have more than enough to contend with, as other passengers they have tracked down also begin to die off, after being initially interviewed. Are they being silenced? There is also the issue of the mysterious passenger over which there seems to be much confusion. Was it a man or a woman? The passengers while they are still alive are often not very forthcoming with information. But we soon realise this is not due to criminal secrets but due to embarrassment, wanting to avoid revealing too much of themselves and their secret shames – a psychological component which strengthens the novel. As the bodies come thick and fast two of the remaining passengers attempt to solve the case themselves – an element which only emerges in the final third of the novel and in my opinion is the weakest element, as this part of the story does have some pacing issues.
I enjoyed how we received information via the suspects’ thoughts as well as via police interviews. The former often helped to maintain pace until the final third where suspect thoughts slowed things down. One of the surprises in the solution I saw coming, but another one definitely took me completely by the surprise. In some ways it felt quite realistic, but on the other hand I think the reader could have been more prepared for the motivations behind the crimes. My biggest niggle though is with the ending of the novel, which rather irked me, taking abruptness to a whole new level. However on a more positive I enjoyed the opening of the book a lot. We know to expect a body but Japrisot still manages to make it feel like a surprise, inserting a blunt line informing us of the body, immediately after a train employee’s reverie over his last stay in Nice.
The narrative style is definitely one of the things which makes this book striking. I have already commented on some of its features already, but in the beginning I noticed that in the opening pages of the story there was a negation of names. Characters are referred to by gender or job title. Something like this could easily become confusing, yet this is not the case here and instead gives a sense of anonymity to the characters involved, all the while still making them feel distinctive. In a way it was quite nice to not be immediately bombarded by a lot of character names in the opening chapter. I did also notice a negation of speech marks in the first part of the book. Not sure if this was an intentional part of the narrative style or not, as such punctuation does appear later in the book. The sense of time in this tale is also quite flexible when it comes to the passengers’ thoughts, as their thoughts often flow between past and present events. I think this worked quite well, though it certainly keeps you on your toes! So all in all I think this was a good read, entertaining and making a change from my usual GAD reads.