Reviewed by Karen Langley
Golden Age crime, which has had such a revival recently, is renowned for particular tropes and settings; the country house location or the locked room mystery are often featured, but another very popular backdrop is trains. So many famous mysteries are set on trains, “Murder on the Orient Express” being the most obvious; and so it should be no surprise, therefore, that the British Library Crime Classics imprint has chosen to celebrate this aspect with a marvellous collection of short works involving the railways – “Blood on the Tracks”.
The stories featured are chosen by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, and he provides the usual erudite and interesting commentary in the form of a useful introduction which covers the history of trains in GA crime, as well as a short preface to each story. And the collection features a really fabulous selection of authors; some are well known, but there are many who have slipped out of the public eye and it was a real joy to encounter them.
Edwards has arranged his selections in roughly chronological order, and the book opens with an intriguing non-Holmes story (or is it??) by Conan Doyle, “The Man with the Watches”. Other high profile GA novelists such as R. Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts and Ernest Bramah provide entertaining puzzles, and Freeman’s contribution (“The Case of Oscar Brodski”) is particularly ground-breaking, as it presents the crime from two opposing viewpoints and allows the viewer to enjoy the process of deduction to the full. Ernest Bramah’s blind detective Max Carrados has perhaps become less well known in recent years, but the story in which he features (“The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem”) shows that the author had considerable talents and that his stories would be well worth tracking down.
Then there are names like Ronald Knox: a founding member of the Detection Club, he seems to have been side-lined a little, but his affectionate Holmes pastiche “The Adventure of the First Class Carriage” is a worthy entry here. Michael Innes’ detective, Appleby, makes an appearance in a short but memorable and slightly tongue-in-cheek story. And Michael Gilbert, who seems to have been remarkably prolific, but whose work I’ve never read, offers a marvellously clever thriller style variant on the theme.
I had to cheer at the inclusion of a story from Dorothy L. Sayers, whose Lord Peter Wimsey takes on “The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face” and ends up wrestling with quite a moral dilemma (as is so often the case with Wimsey). Another treat came in the form of F. Tennyson Jesse’s “The Railway Carriage”; the author is probably best-known for her “A Pin to see the Peepshow”, which fictionalised the Thompson-Bywaters murder case. However, I didn’t realise she’d written a series of stories about Solange Fontaine, a kind of occult sleuth, and this story features Solange and some psychic phenomena, as well as evidencing Jesse’s strong opposition to the death penalty.
“Blood on the Tracks” really does show the full range of crime writing, from locked room, impossible crimes, stories which delve into the psychology of the crime, those where you have no idea whodunit, those where you know exactly whodunit but not how they’ll be caught, slightly supernatural stories and even those where a crime doesn’t actually happen but someone still gets punished! There was I suppose the risk that such a collection could become a little dull if each story was just set on a train; however the range of works chosen stretches the premise very effectively and cleverly so that although trains feature in each story in some way, they’re not all just stuck in a locked carriage.
So this latest collection from the British Library is a wonderfully varied, readable and enjoyable anthology, expertly chosen and perfect for reading in short chunks. That said, I found that because of the variety I raced through it, as the stories contained so much contrast that the book didn’t feel at all repetitive. The selection very effectively showcases the Inventive talents of a wide range of crime authors and it’s another worthy addition to the ever-growing range of excellent books in the British Library Crime Classics collection. Highly recommended!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and just about remembers (with great affection) the age of steam.
Martin Edwards (ed.), Blood on the Tracks (British Library, 2018). ISBN 9780712352703, 383pp, paperback.
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