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This is the second book in crime writer Edward Marston's new 'Inspector Robert Colbeck' series, a set of historical crime fiction novels based around an inspector who is fascinated by the developing railway. I hadn't read the first book, but thought the premise of this one, a man murdered on a train, sounded potentially quite intriguing. The blurb promised that the story would 'hold you captivated', but the front cover seemed rather dull, though appropriate to the story, and I was more hoping than expecting to be enthralled.
The opening chapter plunges us into the thick of the action. An excursion train is loading up passengers to transport them to an illegal prize fight, as the train conductor frets about conveying the motley crowd to their destination, concerned about the damage they might do to his property. Immediately then, an atmosphere of anticipation and slight danger is established by the presence of this unreliable group of passengers. This helped to ensure that I was engaged in the story from the beginning and anticipating trouble. Sure enough, by the end of the first chapter there's a body, but there's also a nice touch of humour:
"This is dreadful!" cried Todd Galway, recoiling in horror.
"Yes," said Horlock, a wealth of sympathy in his voice. "The poor devil will never know who won that fight now."
This was a recurring feature of the novel that I really enjoyed: the occasional, dry moments of humour.
Inspector Colbeck is summoned, on account of his sterling job working the previous railway case. Very early on, he realises that the deceased had worked as a public executioner, and the manner of his own death (garrotting) seems to suggest that someone was deeply unhappy with his work. Although Colbeck has a 'theory' that is denigrated by his superior officer - in a manner that seems slightly too typical of how police relationships across the hierarchy are depicted in crime novels - the inspector is a logical man who follows up his hypotheses neatly and in a manner that allows the reader to follow the action exactly. I always understood why particular characters were suspects and how Colbeck was following up on his leads.
I really enjoyed this aspect of the novel because I find it seriously frustrating when clever detectives have a Eureka moment and then the author shifts the action away from them so the dullard reader cannot follow what is going on until the genius detective returns and explains how his superior mind works. Cue: admiration for the detective, (and the author, of course,) and a few minutes sat figuring how whether or not this magical conclusion actually fits with everything else you've read, and, if so, how you managed to miss or misinterpret the clues. Obviously, you're just not as clever as the detective, darling. There, there (*head patting*) However, in this story, there are no magical Eureka moments: there is solid police work supported by careful reasoning and meals at pubs. For this reason, I found the characters much more believable and engaged with them much more. I also found myself able to weigh suspects against each other and begin to put together a thesis that might hold water. That said, the ending still came as a surprise because I was never certain who was responsible (although my supposition was correct, so I did feel quite smug,) until the Inspector put together the final pieces at the end in a conclusion that felt largely reasonable but slightly disjointed. I was not entirely convinced that everything hung together, but Colbeck made it all seem so reasonable that I wanted to believe it!
The Inspector does not work alone but has a partner who he deploys consistently to complete tasks which often turn out to be not as straightforward as Leeming might hope! I really enjoyed reading about the relationship between him and his partner, which reminded me of that between Sherlock Holmes and Watson, except that Leeming is seriously unlucky. This became a kind of running joke as the novel developed, but Leeming's misfortune always seemed to result from believable circumstances. At one point, Colbeck is shot at, but his partner gains the greater injury! The characters were both convincingly drawn and had love interests to help make them more rounded individuals. As the book is set in the Victorian era, this did not result in any sexy stuff, but some pleasantly awkward scenes in which Colbeck's young lady dares to draw hope for the future from such trifles as an invitation to dine with the Inspector - with her father, of course. Again, I found this a nice addition to the story that, due to the decorous nature of their relationship, did not detract from the rest of the storyline, which I often find happens in other series featuring detectives in relationships. It helps that Colbeck is not dark, brooding or troubled; instead, he is pragmatic, focused and endearingly calm in the face of adversity.
I have one real criticism of the novel, which is that there is one slightly ludicrous section in which the detectives realise that a man is at risk of being killed, and then in the next paragraph we switch to that man's viewpoint and see him being killed. To me, the set-up was unconvincingly abrupt. It developed a bit like this: "Oh no! He's in danger!" ...obligatory death scene... "Oh no! He's dead!" I wonder whether this awkwardness developed because Marston saw this as a detail necessary for creating a sense of urgency in an otherwise quite quiet novel, but was not really interested in developing it properly as part of the storyline. My suspicions are strengthened because the blurb makes it very clear that there is a second murder which means that Colbeck must work quickly to save others from potential danger. This seems to be a fairly standard prop of crime fiction. Worried your readers might forget that there's a nasty killer on the loose? Kill off a minor character, quickly, and then have a senior officer point out in a sonorous voice that the bodies are mounting up and the press are baying for blood. After all, two bodies are way more scary than one. Sadly, if this brief episode was intended to add a sense of urgency, it didn't work for me at all because it was handled in such a desultory manner. Still, this is really a minor criticism of a flaw in an otherwise convincing and realistic tale.
So was I captivated? Not really, but I think that word implies a fast paced, frenetic response that simply doesn't suit this nicely unfolding story. Overall this was a mildly told but well paced and enjoyable tale, peopled by a range of convincing characters and unobtrusively supported by appropriate historical detail. I would happily recommend this to all fans of 'lighter' crime fiction.