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I seem to be reading a lot of historical crime novels recently and it is a genre that is appealing as it recreates the feel and atmosphere of the classic novels while injecting an element of contemporary interpretation to the characters and story...or at the least the better ones do.
'The Lost Luggage Porter' the third novel in the Jim Stringer detective series (following on from 'The Necropolis Railway' and the 'The Blackpool Highflyer') probably doesn't totally achieve these lofty goals but is nonetheless a good read. It harks back to the 'golden years' of the detective novel; think of fog filled Victorian alleyways frequented by Holmes and Watson or the more quirky plot led Poirot novels, but it is different in that it is set in the Edwardian period just after Queen Victoria's death a time which is largely ignored by today's historical fiction- Mark Gattiss 'The Vesuvius Club' being one notable exception.
The other unusual aspect of the story is that Jim Stringer the hero is not a brilliant amateur sleuth or even a straightforward policeman but is instead working for the Railway Police hence his tag 'the steam detective'. Stringer has transferred to York is about to start work at the main railway station then one of the principal junctions of the North Eastern Railway Company. Stringer is enthusiastic about trains and this often comes through in his thoughts but don't start thinking this is crime fiction for trainspotters it isn't. The description of the steam locomotives and the Victorian stations that they operated from is essential to evoke the period, a time which was so heavily dependent on the railway network for economic and social expansion.
Jim Stringer is new to his job having recently left working on the trains a period that is covered in the earlier novels. He's been posted to work at the railway police HQ in York station and even before he officially starts he is indirectly involved in the case of a brutal murder of two brothers both well known local petty criminals. Frustratingly for Stringer the investigation falls under the charge of the regular police even though the men had connections with the railway company and their bodies were found next to the tracks. However when Stringer is posted undercover by his new boss to try and infiltrate a local street gang of pick pockets operating in the Station he soon realises that some bigger crime is being planned and that there might be a connection to the brutal murders.
Stringer is a very sympathetic character, he doesn't have the analytical qualities of a great detective but he makes this up with dogged devotion to the job and an honesty of purpose. He's very much an 'ordinary bloke' in his mid twenties married with a wife expecting their first child. Recently moved to the area because of the job there are stresses in his personal life which lead his wife to undertake typing work from home to supplement the meagre income that he brings in.
Springer's wife Liz is an interesting character and you tend to warm to her more than the rather straight-laced Jim. She is obviously intelligent and ambitious but is being held back by the restriction placed on women at the time. The author through her character brings some of the flavour of the struggle for the emancipation of women that was just beginning at this time and also highlights the extent to which families were divided over this issue; Jim's dad a more traditional male is uncomfortable over his daughter-in-law's progressive views and not so subtly keeps on remind her of her rightful place by buying her a sewing machine and sending her women's articles from the local paper. Liz herself is not interested in the traditional roles and befriends a local suffragette Lillian Backhouse who she envies and respects.
Andrew Martin is obviously an aficionado of steam railways and has even learnt how to drive locomotives but while he manages to convey his enthusiasm for this bygone time through Stringer's character, he never overwhelms the story with it. He recreates a very believable world on the verge of becoming what we would recognise as the modern era. This is a time of great social and political change that unbeknown to the characters would come to a dramatic head with the Great War less than a decade after the story is set.
There is a great attention to detail in the story and it is clear that Martin has researched his subject well. There vivid descriptions of the town, the buildings, the clothes and even down to the minutiae like the workings of a bicycle lamp. The speech the characters used is perfectly in tune with what one would expect for the period including the use of archaic northern slang. To this extent the novel succeeds in immersing the reader in to the provincial Edwardian world of street gangs and lowlifes. It is also refreshing to read a period tale that does not focus on London but sets out to describe what life was like at the margins of the country.
'The Lost Luggage Porter' is an enthralling read for all the reasons I have given, however it struggles to sustain an interest in the central premise of the story. Jim Stringer is a believable character and one gets the impression he would be a thoroughly nice chap to know in real life but he's not the most enigmatic literary creation and this lack of empathy does detract from the story. The novel is populated by some colourful peripheral character like the villains Blocker and Brains and the enigmatic Edward Lund the Luggage porter of the title and these help to maintain the interest but in the end the lack of charisma of the central character and the rather at times slow moving plot really fail to fully engage the reader purely as a detective mystery story.
Overall Andrew Martin's novel is a good read it's very evocative of the period fascinating for its detailed description of a lost world but it is not a great detective novel. Don't let this put you off reading it though it will be of interest to anyone who likes historical fiction and it will also keep you entertained.
I would recommend it as a means of passing the time on a long train journey.
'The Lost Luggage Porter' by Andrew Martin in paperback (320 pages) published by Faber and Faber (ISBN-10: 0571219047/ISBN-13: 978-0571219049) is available on Amazon for £5.00 (+p&p) at the time this review was written.
© Mauri 2007
In York, Winter, 1906 - two brothers have been shot to death. Meanwhile, Jim Stringer meets the Lost Luggage Porter, humblest among the employees of the North Eastern Railway company. He tells Jim a tale which leads him to the roughest part of town, a place where the police constables always walk in twos. Jim is off on the trail of pickpockets, 'station loungers' and other small fry of the York underworld. But then, in a tiny, one-room pub with a badly smoking fire, he enters the orbit of a dangerous, disturbed villain who is playing for much higher stakes...