The Case of the Hail Mary Celeste by Malcolm Pryce

Reviewed by Victoria

Hail Mary CelesteIt is such a delightful surprise when a book you knew nothing about turns out to be a corker. I had never read any of Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth crime novels and I wasn’t at all sure that a novel set on the Great Western Railway in December 1947 was going to be my cup of tea. But within a few pages I was captivated by the story and its hilarious and endearing combination of Boy’s Own adventure, romance and surreal situations and basically I grabbed every free minute I had to finish it.

Jack Wenlock is a Railway Gosling; his mother ‘was engine number 2904 Lady Godiva’ with her ‘domeless parallel boiler, raised Belpaire firebox and boiler pressure of 200 psi’. His real flesh and blood mother he never sees, as she gives birth to him in a special engine shed at the Weeping Cross Railway Servant’s Orphanage. Instead, working from the theories of Oskar Heinroth, Jack is led to believe that his mother is the first thing he claps eyes on after the womb. It’s true that the GWR railway has become the only family he has ever known, the other orphans his siblings, and his role in his adult life is to be a ‘Gosling class detective, that fabled cadre of detectives who trod the corridors of the GWR trains in the years 1925 to 1947’. Jack’s life up until the story opens has been one of devoted service to the railways, chasing fare dodgers and pickpockets and uncovering the truth behind any violent or surprising incident that occurs. But when Jenny from the Anaglypta mill walks into his office, his life changes.

Jenny brings with her a disturbing tale. Her Aunt Agatha was on the 4.50 to Brackhampton when she fell asleep. When she awoke, there was another train passing them on the adjacent line and for a moment the carriages kept pace. She could see, in the other train, a man with his hands around the throat of a young woman. If this wasn’t bad enough, Aunt Agatha’s attempts to report the crime seem to have provoked her detention in an insane asylum, held there in a medical coma for reasons Jenny cannot uncover.

Much as we are all enjoying this nod towards Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington, Jack takes the tale in an unexpected direction. He tells Jenny that what her aunt has witnessed is a ‘fishbone’, a trick to distract a member of the public by a pretty female con artist, whose accomplice (usually a child) will then pickpocket the good samaritan. He also thinks he knows who the con artist might be: Magdalene, one of his fellow siblings from the orphanage. Before he’s even had a chance to contact his network of railway friends, however, he arrives in his office to find an unwelcome visit from Lord Apsley, proctor of the orphanage, heroic war veteran and a man towards whom Jack feels any number of moral obligations. With him are two sinister henchmen full of vague menace and it becomes clear that the authorities are determined to warn Jack off Jenny’s case. Jack, we have soon come to realise, is a sweetly naïve and upstanding young man, old-fashioned and courteous, deeply respectful of all in authority. So he might well have obeyed those orders, had he not already fallen in love with Jenny.

And this complex and multi-faceted case seems to trail back to the one great unsolved mystery of the GWR – the disappearance in 1917 of twenty-three nuns from the 7.25 Swindon to Bristol Temple Meads, otherwise known as the case of the ‘Hail Mary’ Celeste. Only one Railway Gosling has ever come close to the solution of the enigma, the heroic Cadbury Holt, who has long been missing, presumed eaten by a lion. Cadbury knew the truth and recounted it in the now-missing 1931 edition of the Boy’s Own Railway Gosling Annual, a story which we readers are being presented in short excerpts as the present day investigation progresses. These include the hilariously deadpan replies to our readers’ letters (‘MISS DAISY C., PINNER – No English schoolboy has ever been hit on the head by a falling meteorite. You will have to find other methods of dealing with your brother’) and recount an extraordinary tale of drunken riverboat captains, melancholic gorillas, savage tribes in exotic lands and nuns toting rifles.

This book is just so much fun, and it manages as well to be a beautifully plotted piece of crime fiction and a touchingly tender love story. It would take a heart of stone not to root for Jack and Jenny as they follow the trail of the missing nuns into ever more dangerous territory. As for me, I’m now going to go back over Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth novels as I’ve clearly been missing out. I don’t know if he’s going to write another Railway Gosling mystery, but I’d be first in line to read it if he did.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Malcolm Pryce, The Case of the Hail Mary Celeste (Bloomsbury: London,  2015) 978-1408858929, 352 pp., hardback.

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