I don’t succumb to buying books based on their covers very often, but this was one of those occasions. The cover suggested a vintage-feeling train mystery, something classic, something even a bit cosy. The title is a blatant riff on the Christie classic as are parts of the blurb:
‘Eighteen passengers. Seven stops. One killer. In the early hours of Christmas Eve, the sleeper train to the Highlands is derailed, along with the festive plans of its travellers. With the train stuck in snow in the middle of nowhere, a killer stalks its carriages, picking off passengers one by one. Those who sleep on the sleeper train may never wake again. Can former Met detective Roz Parker find the killer before they kill again?’
The end papers were pleasing aesthetically with a map of the train in a blueprint style and there is the mention at the start of the book of an additional puzzle and quiz. I was poorly, well more poorly than usual and I wanted a comforting easy read, with some classic crime vibes. This book seemed to tick those boxes. It is just unfortunate that the blurb and the cover really don’t match the actual story…
I was disabused of vintage-y vibes from page one when we are thrust into a very modern milieu in terms of cast, with an Instagram celebrity rushing out of a train carriage after another dispute with her reality tv celeb boyfriend. Emotions are high as Meg realises the argument was filmed and is now trending on social media, and she reads through the online comments. She prepares (in this prologue) to reveal all on her Instagram account (whilst of course mentioning all the makeup sponsors she has) but dies before she can complete doing so.
I am not one for watching Love Island, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here or Made in Chelsea. Reality TV and its outlets on social media such as Tik Tok and Instagram are just not my cup of tea, so a book which hinges upon such a milieu is not going to easily draw me in. In fact, it had the opposite effect of repelling me. If this element of the book had been more apparent on the cover or in the blurb, then I could have happily skipped it by.
I wonder if the book is aimed at a younger audience, well younger than me anyways, the very trendy cast made me feel more like 91 than 31. One of the biggest weaknesses I found with the novel was its writing style, which lacked freshness and was cluttered with stale cliches, which given that they are cliches to do with make up and fame obsessed characters, made this a duller read for me. Furthermore, the cast as a whole are fairly depressing, and this made me think of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express where we have characters with troubles, yet they don’t produce a depressing effect on the reader. I definitely think there is a knack to writing about people’s problems and I don’t feel this author has quite honed it yet. Other cliches in the narrative include Roz, the recently retired police officer who will go on to solve the multiple murders. Unsurprisingly she has a troubled past and a fractured relationship with her daughter. Furthermore, the third chapter is the first of the sections which includes “the killer’s thoughts” on what is going on. In this first example, which has jumped back in time before the murder is committed, it is all about their anticipation of their crime. Yet it was all flat and predictable and these sections continued to not add to the reading experience. I came to the conclusion that the writing style reminded me of fill in the gap exercises where the material is so familiar that you can with little attention finish off sentences or ideas.
One character takes a copy of Murder on the Orient Express with them to read and there is snow and a tree on the line, which prevents further travel, and all of this is traditional crime fiction fodder, yet these jar with the people in the book and events such as someone vomiting through their hands all over the place and on to other people’s clothes. I think this book is intended to be a quicker read or at least action paced – but I found I was sufficiently disenchanted with the plot, that I didn’t feel like it was going quick enough. I found myself reading it faster less to find out what happened and more to get it over with.
The puzzle plot does have some interesting aspects such as the choice of victim for the second death, as it encourages you to question what you thought you knew. However, the third is disappointingly old hat. The younger immature characters persuade everyone that they don’t all want to stick together (“I want my freedom!” “There’s a killer on the loose” “We don’t care”) and of course everyone splits up and of course someone dies… Well of course they were going to and all because of some characters who are just acting like spoilt brats. It felt like the victim was wilfully trying to get themselves murdered.
Little is elicited from the early interviews Roz conducts and I found the book dragged. She has a police contact who sends her info on the passengers, but this is withheld from us at one crucial point, meaning significant evidence is found off the page and only unveiled in the final solution. Meg’s means of death is undisputedly a clever one, but unfortunately it largely comes out of nowhere and how Roz reaches that conclusion is dissatisfying, although not as dissatisfying as the final solution for the whole case. It is overly convoluted with new information given to the reader at the last minute. It is unnecessarily complicated – it is an ending which needed its final half lopping off, which may have made it less “twisty” but would have made for a bigger impact. As such it is just too overfilled and I felt the book was trying to do too much and therefore not doing each separate bit very well. I go into more details about the ending in the spoiler section below.
I do realise though that I am in the minority on this one, as I have seen lots of positive reviews online.
SPOILER – This section is in ROT CODE 13 so only read it if you already know the ending of the story.
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