A railway anthology! Yay! There's no setting I enjoy more than a train setting, and there's nothing I enjoy more than a mystery. So railway mysteries are my very favourites of all time.
There's something organic about how a train becomes a closed off setting for mysteries, because as long as it's not a local train, there will be lots of time between stations and that naturally allows the detective some time to solve the crime. Snowed-in castles and boats can fulfil the same natural set-up, but there's just something about the rails...
Anyway, except for this anthology focussing on train settings, this is a standard British Library Crime Classics anthology set-up. Older authors in the beginning, newer ones towards the end, and a mix of a bit of everything.
But since this revolves around trains, surely it'll automatically place itself somewhere in the top of the rankings? Well, you'll just have to read on to find out.
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Man with the Watches
As a train is about to depart from Euston Station bound for Manchester, a pair of travellers - a middle-aged man and a young woman - arrive just in time to catch it. But a couple of stops later, attention is drawn to their compartment where the door is hanging open. When this compartment and the neighbouring one are searched, it turns out that the two, as well as a younger man from that neighbouring compartment, have gone missing. But instead, in their compartment there is the dead body of a man with six watches in his pockets.
This is one of the two apocrypha of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon - there is a "famous detective" referred to, though he is never named. To be honest, both Doyle's apocryphal stories are generally better mysteries than the Sherlock Holmes ones. They come as close to being fair play as Doyle ever got, and they show that Doyle could plot with the best of them. A fine start to this anthology.
L. T. Meade & Robert Eustace - The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel
John Bell is an investigator of unexplainable phenomena, and in this story he is approached by Bainbridge, a man from a railroad company in Wales who wants him to investigate the death of a signalman just next to Felwyn Tunnel, where the dead man was surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs (and the tunnel), and there were signs that he had tried to escape something by climbing one of the cliffs. And then when Bell and Bainbridge return to Wales, they receive news of a second death at the same spot.
Meade & Eustace wrote several impossible crimes, but this isn't one of them. I think it's a fairly clever tale, better than most of their impossible ones, to be honest. The solution to the mystery is well-grounded in science, and I'm sure it would work in real life as well.
Matthias McDonnell Bodkin - How He Cut His Stick
A man is tasked with carrying a bag of bank gold on the train from London to one of the bank's branch offices, and is attacked and robbed of the gold without seeing his assailant. Suspicion falls heavily on the carrier, but the bank manager enlists female investigator Dora Myrl to investigate the case.
Now we're getting closer to fair play mystery clueing, though I can't say I was all that impressed with the story as a whole. There's never any doubt about who the villain is. A bit disappointing.
Baroness Orczy - The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway
The Old Man in the Corner and Polly Burton discuss a case where a woman has been found dead on an underground railway carriage (first class - those were the days!), with suspicions first going towards suicide, though the Old Man has different thoughts.
This is on the whole a pleasant and good story. I can't say that the culprit comes as much of a surprise, and it has to be said that the police must have been dimmer than most not to be able to identify how the woman was killed. Still, as I said, a pleasant and nice read.
Victor L. Whitechurch - The Affair of the Corridor Express
A young boy disappears on board a train, and there's no sign of him when the train is searched from front to end. Thorpe Hazell, the railway detective, is put on the case to try to work out what could have happened to him.
An impossible crime on a train, no less! As awesome as it sounds, the whole thing didn't wholly satisfy me. I just think that the solution was a bit too far-fetched, even though it's very prosaic. It's still a very good tale, it just didn't fully live up to my expectations when I'd read the problem. I'll need to search out more stories from Whitechurch, I think.
R. Austin Freeman - The Case of Oscar Brodski
Jewel thief Silas Hickler meets an old acquaintance, Oscar Brodski. When it turns out that Brodski is in possession of several diamonds, Hickler decides to kill him and steal the jewels. He arranges things to look as if Brodski met his fate on the railway tracks, but then Dr. Thorndyke enters the scene and starts investigating the whole thing.
As you see, this is an inverted mystery story - possibly the first one ever - which is the main thing against it. Because otherwise, this is a very fine short story indeed. Well, "short" might be a misnomer, it's almost a novella in length. I've often said that I don't like inverted mysteries, but this makes the investigation quite interesting, and since the culprit is such a blackguard it's good to see how his comeuppance comes closer with every second.
Roy Vickers - The Eighth Lamp
Signalman George Raoul is haunted by an underground train that only he can hear nearing the station where he works. Each day the train is heard coming just a little bit nearer...
Yeah, so from that description you'll probably be able to guess that this is not a mystery, it's a ghost/horror story. There's some criminous elements on the fringes, but this story really shouldn't be in a mystery anthology. But is it any good? I don't know, I guess it's kind of effective. But since I'm no aficionado I find it hard to review it.
Ernest Bramah - The Knight's Cross Signal Problem
Max Carrados investigates a baffling event where a passenger train ran past a signal and crashed into another, resulting in several people killed. Could the experienced train driver really have missed the signal, or is something more sinister going on?
I've mentioned before that Bramah's stories are an early precursor into the Golden Age, and he often writes fair play stories. This is one of them, and features a very interesting motive on the part of the culprit. There's no mistaking the story being from the early 1900s, but it's still a good read.
Dorothy L. Sayers - The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face
A man has been found washed up on the beach with his face disfigured, and Lord Peter Wimsey gets interested in the case.
This isn't the best Sayers story I've read, that's for sure. It's a bit too steeped in melodrama, I feel, and compared with some of her better works this comes up a cropper. The railway connection is pretty tenuous, also.
F. Tennyson Jesse - The Railway Carriage
Solange Fontaine is travelling on a train which is derailed.
I said that the Vickers story didn't really belong in this collection, but this is even worse. I mean, I couldn't even come up with anything even remotely criminous to use in my short description of the story. This is not a mystery story, it's simply a story. A story with some supernatural elements, but it definitely is completely and thoroughly out of place here.
Sapper - Mystery of the Slip-Coach
An elderly bookmaker has been murdered in a train compartment. There was no way to get to the train car where the murder happened from the rest of the train, and there are only four other passengers present in that particular car. Now all Ronald Standish has to do is to find out which of them committed the murder...
This is, in a sense, an impossible crime, though I think the author could have made those aspects much more integrated into the case. But it's a good story, though it has to be said that there is a bit too much coincidence involved in how the crime was committed.
Freeman Wills Crofts - The Level Crossing
Dunstan Thwaite has made his mind up to kill his blackmailer, John Dunn. He plans everything meticulously, and then finally the fateful night has come...
So, an inverted tale, and no Inspector French either. This is not really the type of story I enjoy, as you will probably know by now. If you do, then you will probably like this story, for it is well-written.
Ronald Knox - The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage
Sherlock Holmes is approached by a caretaker, coming to report on her master, who has been coming with suicidal hints in the presence of his wife. Holmes and Watson sets out to follow him on the train, where they are surprised to find that he is throwing bits of paper through the window. They managed to get their hands on one, which again seem to be suicide notes.
Knox manages to craft a fairly Doyle-an tale, though that is rather to its detriment, because he emulates those bits in Doyle's writings that are the main problem with Holmes - it's simply not fair play at all. Otherwise, a pleasant enough read.
Michael Innes - Murder on the 7.16
Inspector John Appleby is in charge of investigating a case where movie director Lemuel Whale has been killed on the set of the film he was directing.
This is just a cute little story, there's no real investigating of any kind. The culprit confesses everything and that's when we find out everything that happened. Still, it was amusing and being as short as it was, I didn't mind it being here.
Michael Gilbert - The Coulman Handicap
The police have it on good authority that mrs Coulman is fencing stolen goods, and they set up an elaborate scheme to follow her to her contacts. Unfortunately, Sergeant Petrella manages to lose her when she goes into a pub and never appears again.
So, it's a bit of an impossible problem then. Unfortunately, the train connection is very tenuous, and there's not much of a mystery involved. There's never any focus on the impossible situation, it's just revealed as an aside as Petrella manages to get hold of the culprit. A bit disappointing.
I know that immediately after reading this collection, I felt fairly disappointed with it all. But going through it again now for this write-up, I find that I actually enjoyed it a bit more than I remembered. The main problems with the collection are that there are no true standouts among the stories, that it features two absolute non-mysteries, and that, unlike several others of the BLCC anthologies, it tapers off towards the end.
But there are many interesting stories here that are worth reading nonetheless. I liked the tales by Doyle, Bramah, Meade & Eustace, Sapper and Whitechurch, for example, and if you're more tolerant of inverted mysteries than I am, then there are a couple more to look forward to.
Kate agrees with me in praising this anthology at crossexaminingcrime, though we differ in which stories we highlight... And Aidan echoes us in enjoying the collection at Mysteries Ahoy.
Where does it go in my rankings of BLCC anthologies, you (probably don't) ask?
1. Miraculous Mysteries - no surprise there, this is an
impossible crime anthology, so it has lots of things going for it that
elevate it above all the other collections.
2. Silent Nights - the quality of the collections here in the middle of the list is fairly uniform, but I think this one just manages to go to the top. A good variety of stories and a few really good ones.
3. Blood on the Tracks - a collection with few standouts and some truly bewildering inclusions, but on the whole it was still a worthwhile read.
4. The Long Arm of the Law
- starts off spottily, but gets better and better, and even though it
finishes with one of the worst stories I've ever read it's still distinctly
5. Murder at the Manor - I was thoroughly
disappointed that this didn't feature any true country house mysteries. I
think there was one fair play mystery among the whole bunch of stories.
A good review, Christian, thorough and thoughtful. Over at ONTOS we've encountered some of these stories:ReplyDelete
"The Affair of the Corridor Express":
A better choice for a Freeman story would have been "The Blue Sequin" (a.k.a. "The Blue Spangle"):
"The Eighth Lamp" is problematic, but there seems to be more going on in it of a criminous nature than first meets the eye:
"The Knight's Cross Signal Problem":
"The Mystery of the Slip-Coach":
A better choice for a Crofts story would have been "The Mystery of the Sleeping-Car Express", but Martin Edwards might have decided that it's too familiar to readers:
Thanks for the links, Mike.Delete
On the whole, there are obviously several other great railway mystery stories that could have been included here, and I do agree that your Crofts suggestion would have been better, but you're also probably right that Edwards might have wanted something a little less well-known.
I enjoyed reading through your thoughts on this one. Like you, my first response to the collection was one of being underwhelmed but I think I had probably had too much of a good thing when it came to the train setting. Looking at them individually as you do, I think most of the stories are pretty strong (even if I like those inverted stories a whole lot more than you do).ReplyDelete
Yeah, if I remember correctly we were fairly agreed on this one. I'm still perplexed about the inclusion of the F. Tennyson Jesse tale - it certainly features a train, but man, it really isn't a mystery at all.Delete
Oh - and thanks for linking to my review!ReplyDelete