Ranging from Arthur Conan Doyle to Michael Gilbert, this collection of stories edited by Martin Edwards represents a Golden Age of murder mysteries encapsulated in short stories. The common theme is railways; travel on them, as settings for untimely death, and even the use of trains as weapons. As pointed out by Edwards, they are enclosed spaces in which ‘locked room’ mysteries are contrived, as only a limited number of people are travelling in the carriages and coaches, thus providing a certain number of suspects. This collection of stories, all chosen as representative of the authors’ output, are strong tales creating a world of steam trains, timetables and solutions. I was grateful to receive a copy of this book.
From the beginning the stories in this volume include mysteries of bodies found with interesting clues. Not all the bodies are found on a train; in some the bodies are found in or near the lines. Weapons must be found, means of killing established, bodies horribly mangled to conceal other wounds. Rarely are these gentle deaths by poison or other sophisticated means, but often well thought out and dependent on the accuracy of time tables. Other crimes such as theft are facilitated by the use of trains; depending on frequency and predictability, opportunity for deceit. There are also inverted tales to be found, as the murderer is described from the start and the suspense is to be found in the possibility of detection. Sophisticated stories prevail here, as men and women plot and plan but circumstances intervene. Not all the mysteries here are sorted out by detectives; the truth emerges in various ways and there is always a satisfactory ending. I particularly enjoyed the story by Dorothy L. Sayers, as the detection and resolution is not the obvious eventual solution. At least one of these stories reveal accurate knowledge of incidents on railways which ended in death; all depend on understanding of trains, signals and the way they were run. A few of the stories relate to the supernatural or non human agencies, they are literally haunting in their use of the supernatural and atmospheric reality of trains cloaked in steam. The power and predictability of trains is well examined here, not as dreary modes of commuter transport but scenes of struggle and emotion in so many ways.
Given the range and variety of these stories and the fifteen different authors who wrote them, it would be reasonable to expect one or two weak efforts, but actually they are all strong in their way. None have the depth and subtlety of the novels set on trains as they are all brief works, but all are clever working out of mysteries set either on trains or the lines on which they run to time and significantly, signals. This book would appeal to fans of mysteries in the grand traditions of the Golden Age, even if some are earlier and later than the inter war period. It would also be of great interest to the many who appreciate the preserved trains and lines throughout Britain, and are fascinated by the railways of previous times.
Of course , Northernvicar has shown great interest in this particular volume in the British Library Crime Classics series! I imagine he will find time to polish off a few of these stories; he has already checked some of the accuracy of the circumstances. A great value for money book….