The Body on the Train by Frances Brody
Kate Shackleton investigates many unusual things, but in this novel she has to push to the edge of friendship and a way of life that dominates parts of the north of England. When a body is found on a train bringing rhubarb to London she is contacted by Scotland Yard, not just because of the fact of an evident murder, but also because it came from a politically sensitive area of industrial unrest. This book is a worthy addition to the Kate Shackleton Mystery series, but also stands up well as a murder mystery on its own with shared characters and setting with previous books. As ever, it is an intense read with brilliant setting and a real feel for the atmosphere of the time; in 1929 Kate is a war widow with a depth of experience in nursing, detection and most importantly emotional intelligence where those around her are concerned. The research into the running of special trains is a worthy part of the novel, but Brody’s research is never intrusive or at the expense of the narrative. As ever the supporting cast of characters adds greatly to the story, as Sykes and Mrs Sugden use their own skills to discover different elements of the case. Kate manages to benefit from both of her family backgrounds, her adoptive influential parents with her father’s role in the local police and her birth family, here providing support when investigations take the trio into a different area. This is an entertaining read which never loses sight of the people involved in any murder case, and is an excellent piece of historical fiction.
The novel opens with Kate’s summons to London to discuss a case of a man’s body being discovered on the train. His identity is a mystery, and given the particular nature of the mining area from which the train has arrived, Scotland Yard is keen to keep a low profile and use more subtle forms of investigation which they believe Kate is able to undertake. She soon decides to go and stay with a childhood friend whose husband’s estate encompasses the area that could be the origin of the mysterious murder. While being confronted with some family secrets, Kate also learns of a second murder, which is causing a lot of local disquiet. Fortunately Sykes is also able to ask questions of those who may be able to shed some light on the original murder, while Mrs Sugden is aided and abetted by two young and enthusiastic helpers.
As usual for these novels, the chapters are mainly narrated by Kate herself, which allows her to explore her feelings about the people involved. A third person narration of the progress of the other investigators is also threaded throughout the book, with details that enlarge the reader’s understanding of the situation. In both cases the narrative flows well with effective hints about the developing storylines, allowing the reader to feel as if they can guess the outcomes. This is a well researched and written book which goes beyond a straightforward murder mystery, as it reveals a lot about the time in which it is set, and the people involved. There are flashes of humour which I enjoyed, as well as threats to safety and subtle changes of mood. As with the other books in this series, I recommend this as a fascinating read concerning the role of women in the interwar period, offering real insights into the period, and providing a satisfying mystery read.