As the title suggests this short story anthology is all about murder and mayhem involving trains and first up we have The Man with the Watches (1898) by Arthur Conan Doyle. Despite not having Holmes or Watson in, their presence can still be felt, with the Watson-esque narrative voice and the ‘well-known criminal investigator,’ who puts in a theory to the story’s mystery – but will it turn out to be correct? The mystery itself involves three passengers disappearing, a man in one carriage and an older man and woman in another. In their stead we have a dead young man, who has been shot, though no one saw him get on the train and why does he have 6 valuable watches upon his person?
Next is a story by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace called The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel (1898). In the Holmes way, our narrator John Bell, receives a client called Mr Bainbridge who is visiting him for his help in the matter of a railway signalman who has died in mysterious circumstances. Death of course occurs at the mouth of the aforementioned tunnel. An arrest quickly follows but when someone else dies and there is no evidence of how they met their death, things become even more baffling. An unusual solution, though not one which would spring to mind very easily.
The robbery of a bank’s funds is the crime of our next story in How He Cut His Stick by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin. I just love how a bank at that time would send a clerk on the train with £5000 in gold and notes in a Gladstone bag. Strong security measures… Thankfully for the clerk in question Dora Myrl is able to track down the missing money. Myrl’s detecting skills are not ones the reader can match but she is a very enjoyable character to follow.
Following on from that we have an Old Man in the Corner story by Baroness Orczy in The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway (1901). From a London ABC teashop our armchair sleuth tells an up and coming journalist called Polly Burton of how a murderer escapes justice when a woman is killed with prussic acid in an underground train carriage. I foresaw the identity of the culprit in this case, but it is a well told tale.
After that clergyman and train enthusiast, Victor L Whitechurch, gives us The Affair of the Corridor Express, which involves the kidnapping of a school pupil on a train. Thorpe Hazell stars in this mystery and he is within the great detective tradition, though he seems to add to it with his own peculiarities of eye gymnastics and digestive exercises. R. Austin Freeman follows this up with an inverted mystery called The Case of Oscar Brodski (1912), which is meant to have been influenced by the real life case of R. v Watson and Wife in 1867. A respectable looking burglar gives into the temptation of an opportunistic murder of a diamond merchant. Alas for him he had not reckoned upon Dr Thorndyke…
Next is the The Eighth Lamp (1916) by Roy Vickers and I never realised that he started writing so early, as he always seemed to be more of an author from the 40s in my head. The nature of the crime in this book is hard to define as are the experiences George Raoul undergoes at the end of his shifts in the underground station of Cheyne. An unusual tale which grabbed my interest as Raoul’s experiences are paralleled with his disintegrating relationship with his girlfriend. Following on from this tale is The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah, a story I have already reviewed in another post. So click here if you want to find out more about it.
After that we have a story by Dorothy L. Sayers called The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face (1928). I must have read this story before as it previously appeared in Lord Peter Views the Body. Yet I didn’t remember a thing about it so it was like reading it for the first time. The train comes in at the start of the tale, in which Lord Peter finds the first class carriage full of overflow passengers from third class, who are all happily telling him about a recent murder, which occurred at East Felpham beach. The face is badly disfigured and there is only one set of footprints going up to the body. A lot of themes and ideas that Sayers uses in her novels also crop up here: the effects of WW1 on soldiers’ minds, beach murder with no evidence of another person’s presence and an advertising company milieu. There is an entertaining moment where Peter offers a girl a small mirror with which to do her make up with and then the reader is let in on the secret that: ‘He did not think it necessary to mention that the last time he had used that mirror it had been to examine the back teeth of a murdered man.’ Nice…
The Railway Carriage (1931) by F. Tennyson Jesse is our next tale featuring Jesse’s female sleuth Solange Fontaine and it is in fact her last recorded case. I wouldn’t say this is a conventional mystery tale, but what it lacks in mystery it more than makes up for in drama, danger and deft dialogue. The next story though provides us with the quite a baffling murder in the Mystery of the Slip-coach (1933) by Sapper. A bookmaker is shot in such a way that only four people could be suspected, yet there is no sign of the weapon and I think this tale presents us with weirdest clue of the collection, that of a raw egg, a clue which is very cleverly explained at the end.
No train mystery short story collection would be complete though without one from Freeman Wills Crofts and this collection includes his story, The Level Crossing (1933). In some ways this story could be seen as an inverted mystery, as we watch Dunstan Thwaite plan the murder of his blackmailer, John Dunn, yet Crofts writes the ending in such a way that we are never quite sure if he did in fact do the deed.
Ronald Knox then offers us The Adventure in the First-Class Carriage (1947), a Holmes pastiche in which a domestic servant comes to Holmes with concerns about her new employers. Knox captures the voice of Watson and Holmes well, though I did see the solution coming from quite early on. That cannot be said of the imaginative solution Michael Innes gives us in his story, the Murder on the 7.16 (1956), which takes place on a film set which is shooting a train thriller. I though it apt that one of the characters says that ‘I’ve no use for trains, if they’re not in a thriller – or for thrillers, if there isn’t a train,’ as trains really do lend themselves to thriller and adventure stories rather well. Martin Edwards notes a number of these in his introduction, many of which I have not watched so looking forward to trying some of them soon.
The collection closes with a story by Michael Gilbert called The Coulman Handicap, featuring one of his series police sleuths, Patrick Petrella. Petrella amongst others are keen to track down how certain stolen goods are being sold onto fences. All attention descends on a middle aged woman called Mrs Coulman. Instead of planes, trains and automobiles, this story is more, trains, ferries and taxis, but will Petrella be able to outwit Mrs Coulman. Good ending to the story, as well as to the collection as a whole.
Given that the stories from this collection range over several decades it was interesting to see how the focus changes, as the earlier tales are largely more puzzle/mechanics orientated, whilst the later tales contain more drama and characterisation interest. I enjoyed how the trains are used in a variety of ways in this story, meaning you didn’t feel like you were reading the same type of story twice, which evidences the effort the British Library and Martin Edwards put into the selection of the stories into their collections. It is always hard to pick favourites but my top two tales were by Sayers and Jesse.
Source: Review Copy (British Library)
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Time/Date in Title (Murder on the 7.16).
Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy! has also reviewed this collection here.