Today’s read is by mystery writing sisters, Constance and Gwenyth Little and was also published under the title, Great Black Kanba and it is under this title which it seems to be talked about online the most. Normally in a Little story there is a young female protagonist who invariably enters into another household either as a relative, employee or something in between. Misunderstandings over identity are also fairly common and in some respects we get this formula in the Black Express. However, the Littles do shake things up a bit, by firstly transporting our young American protagonist to Australia and whilst she is on her way to someone’s home, the action predominantly takes place on a series of trains. The story is set at Christmas, yet it being Australia, the weather is gloriously sunny, which to a Brit is a tad disconcerting.
At the start of the tale especially there is an atmosphere reminiscent of Ethel Lina White’s The Wheels Spin. We have a young woman who is coming round in the sleeper compartment of a train, after receiving a nasty bump on the head from a suitcase. She is told by a kind fellow traveller that her friend was taken off to hospital due to a suspected broken arm. The kind fellow traveller also points out the ultimate destination of the train, Melbourne, and that based on the papers inside her purse, our young woman is called Cleo Ballister. All seems ship shape and above board. Yet Cleo has no memory of her name, her past or her purpose for her journey. Based on the letters in her bag she pieces together that she is meeting her Uncle Joe and other relations at Melbourne station. She also comes across an odd letter from someone called Billy saying, ‘the man I got for you will walk up when he sees you greeting your relatives. He ought to be satisfactory and he’s going all the way to Perth. Name’s Clive Butler.’ And he does indeed turn up taking Cleo into his arms and declaring their engagement. Unsure what is happening Cleo plays along hoping her memory will come back, the loss of which she is keeping quiet. But without her memory who knows what she is getting into? Her cousin Jimmy seems keen to blackmail her into matrimony, hinting at her past dark deeds, even to the extent of being party to murder, but did she really do it? Other events here and there also begin to make her think she might not be Cleo after all, or is this just wishful thinking as Clive suggests, her only supposed ally in her state of amnesia. Death strikes aboard several different trains, (as due to different gauge sizes much train swapping ensues), and other peculiar events, such as the phantom dog barking, keep both Cleo and the reader puzzling over what is really happening.
This story has a lot going for it. The initial setup is suitably intriguing and the Littles write their characters so well. The Australian background is brilliantly evoked, with all the little and big rivalries between different states and the general low opinions of Americanisms. One thing which surprised me was the Australian obsession with drinking tea all the time. It practically becomes a running joke within the book and to be honest I think the British stereotype in this department could be given a run for its money. The writing style as well is wonderfully polished as I’ve come to expect from the Littles and one of my favourite passages is when the kindly fellow traveller
‘…laughed heartily and then composed her face and indicated without being indelicate enough to say so, that she intended going to the ladies’ room before she had her breakfast. She asked, merely by a raise of the eyebrows and a significant look, whether I [Cleo] wanted to go too – but I shook my head…’
Biased of course, I find something entertainingly British in all of this. I loved the deadpan dry humour which crops up in the novel as well, such as when Cleo, the narrator, says, ‘I started up and automatically began to search frantically for me memory, but it wasn’t there, so I hunted for my suitcase instead.’ With such a plot line many well-seasoned sleuths will have one obvious train of thought when it comes to this mystery, one expected twist. Yet the Littles keep you in suspense throughout as events swing one way and then the next, making you wonder how things will turn out for Cleo and furthermore, the Littles throw in plenty of other twists and turns in the story, to keep the tale full to the brim with the unexpected. The bit to do with the phantom dog barking is brilliant.
Yet astute readers will have sensed there is a big but coming in my commentary on this book and such readers would be right. This story could well have been the Littles’ best, until about 30 pages from the end, in a 160 paged book. If the Littles were still alive I would be booking a flight and heading over to their house, demanding an explanation about the ending, which is haphazardly and clumsily thrown at the reader, with little care. It is rushed. It is thriller-ish (and not in a good way). It is told, not shown. Now the Littles know how to write endings as their other books indicate, so I can’t understand this ending. With such a great central puzzle to solve they could have created one heck of a conclusion. But alas they do not and I don’t even have the consolation that my edition might have been abridged.
The Littles are brilliant writers, in the main, so I guess this is why I am more put out. So if you haven’t tried the Littles, you should. But maybe not this one… (not at first anyways).
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): On a mode of transportation