There was a pleasing circularity to reading Andrew Martin's “Murder at Deviation Junction” last week. Back in 2006 when proximity to Beckenham library prompted me to start using public libraries the first book I borrowed was Edward Marston's “Railway Detective”. This first exposure to 19th century rail based crime fiction wasn't all that auspicious, while the story was reasonably absorbing and the book happily finished, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that it was all a bit silly and far fetched – and not in a good way.
It is thus a particular delight that Andrew Martin's treatment of crime and the railways is much more fulfilling. Rob Kitchen, in his very good “View from the Blue House” blog, has highlighted the importance of location in crime fiction, and “Murder at Deviation Junction” undoubtedly recognises this. One of the keys to this is the way in which the author immerses the reader in the industrial power house that was the North East of Edwardian England. The opening scenes amongst the blast furnaces of Middlesbrough in the snow set the tone, summed up neatly by Harry Stringer, the three year old son of lead character, Jim Stringer, when he comments that “Everything's on fire, Dad”, when looking out over the night skyline outside Redcar. Fittingly for the long 19th century, the railways lie at the heart of this cauldron and their description too is evocative, with scenes such as the 'Gateshead Infant' (a Class V Atlantic, fittingly now in 2009 being resurrected by the Great Northern Steam Company) crossing the Ouse capturing the scale of the railways in the period.
Jim Stringer is a delight as a character. In many way's he's the antithesis to the eminently capable Edwardian detective often presented to us; a failed train driver, flailing with police work, and somewhat henpecked by his bluestocking wife, he nonetheless is thoroughly appealing. His commitment to tracking down the secret behind the Whitby-Middlesborough Travelling Club and the murder of photographer Paul Peters is driven not so much by an earnest quest for truth as a means to resuscitate his police career. As such, for all he is at times a touch crude and rough around the edges, it's impossible not to warm to him, and see him largely come good in the end.
The rich character of Stringer is just one reflection of the keen way in which Martin observes the human condition and brings his story to life. Characters comment on the mundane, such as the almost plaintive opinion on spectacles, that “ it's not so much being able to see that I miss as taking them of to rub on my sleeve” the somewhat hapless reporter, Steve Bowman expresses, and this all serves to deepen our appreciation for the world depicted for us.
It is somewhat disappointing that the denouement is a touch drawn out and doesn't really hang together. This reflects some of the greater shortcomings to the plot. Ultimately it doesn't quite live up to the rich universe, the crime eventually exposed seeming almost disappointingly mundane and some aspects of the storyline leaving the reader scratching their heads about why exactly things have happened.
All this notwithstanding “Murder at Deviation Junction” is a genuinely good read, and follows enjoyably in the footsteps of other fusions of railroads and murder, such as “Murder on the Orient Express” and “North by Northwest”. It may not be such a glamorous picture of travelling by train as these other, later, works, but shows the combination of crime and the steady relentless progress offered by the railway is one, when well done, consistently works.