DEATH IN THE TUNNEL (1936) by Miles Burton

burton_death-in-the-tunnell_blThis is a bit of a special post – I have so far managed to get through life without reading a single novel by John Rhode, who often published as Miles Burton and whose real name was Cecil John Street. So I am really happy to have one of his books reviewed here at Fedora – only not by me. Instead this fine analysis come to you courtesy of our very good blogging buddy Colin (aka ‘Livius’) of the mighty party Riding the High Country blog, who has once again graciously agreed to write a guest post for Fedora.

We submit this review for Bev’s Golden Age Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Todd Mason at his Sweet Freedom blog.

When a dead man is discovered alone and locked in a first class train compartment a number of possibilities arise. The obvious one is that the unfortunate gentleman simply passed away through natural causes. However, bloodied clothing and a bullet hole in the vicinity of his heart kind of rules that out. Suicide is to be considered, especially with the gun found lying on the floor, but it may not be a satisfactory explanation either. What if it’s murder? And if it is, then before you can get into who did it, the whole vexing question of just how it was done has to be faced.

As he spoke, the station-master unbuttoned the passenger’s overcoat, and opened it out. He started back in horror. On the breast of the dark grey suit beneath it was a patch of wet blood.

Death in the Tunnel lays out an intriguing situation. A train speeding through the English countryside enters a long tunnel, an unexpected red light is seen causing it to slow down briefly, and then it changes to green allowing it to resume its onward journey. As the brakes are first applied a guard makes his way forward, though the sealed first class carriage to see what’s happening and glances in at the locked compartment with the well-to-do gent, now apparently asleep, who tipped him generously to ensure a solitary trip. At the next stop, however, the slumbering passenger is found to be dead to the world in the most literal sense. He is, or was, Sir Wilfred Saxonby, a wealthy type in virtual retirement. The circumstances, as stated, suggest suicide but there are discrepancies that make the chance of murder an avenue to be explored. Enter Inspector Arnold of the Yard.

“This business will take years from my life. It’s impossible for anybody to get in or out of that tunnel without being seen. Yet, on Thursday evening, people seem to have gone in and out of their own sweet will. From what I can make out one must have gone in, and two came out. But how?”

Arnold is a colorless figure, he’s not described physically at all (or if he is, I can’t recall it) but we do get some sense of his character as the story progresses. He’s essentially a plodding figure, an unimaginative but suspicious instrument of the law. It’s his suspicion that tells him to look beyond the notion of suicide but then he runs into a series of seeming impossibilities – locked compartments, an impenetrable tunnel, cast iron alibis and no clear motives. For assistance he turns to one Desmond Merrion, an amateur sleuth and an altogether sharper tack than his chum from the Yard. Together these two sift through the increasingly tangled and dense skein of alibis, documents and conflicting testimony to edge towards the truth.

burton_death-in-the-tunnell_cc2Miles Burton was one of the pseudonyms used by Cecil John Street and that’s what first attracted me to this book. Now I’d never read anything by Burton/Street but I had heard of his other pen name – John Rhode. The reason I knew that name was because he’d co-written a book, Fatal Descent, with John Dickson Carr. Anyway, despite not having actually disturbed that particular volume on my shelves yet, I thought that anyone who Carr rated enough to collaborate with must have something about him, right? Well, yes and no.

Let’s look at the positives. There’s a train, and stories with  trains are good. I like trains. What’s more, the murder takes place in what is a almost sealed compartment – always interesting. If it isn’t wholly sealed, then the fact it happens in a tunnel which was watched at both ends yet still the murderer exited it certainly grabbed my attention. I think i mentioned a fondness for trains, well impossible crimes excite me even more – put them both together and I’m generally hooked.

So, how about the less satisfactory aspects. The big problem for me is the main detective, Arnold. He’s poorly defined, in my opinion, but the impression I did get was of a staid and stubborn type and, unforgivably in a detective, one who is not overburdened with intelligence. The bit of business with the railway tunnel is nicely done but not that hard to deduce how it was achieved. However, our intrepid investigators really struggle to see the solution, even when a massive clue is flung before them. When you start to feel the main investigator, from Scotland Yard no less, is essentially an obtuse bumpkin you know there are problems. Furthermore, the impossible elements get cleared up relatively quickly and then are replaced by pretty tedious and repetitious stuff concerned with alibis and signatures – worse still there’s an insistence on referring to suspects using the letters A and B, and then cheques they may have signed as cheque 1, cheque 2, cheque 3 etc. Frankly speaking, I was thinking “please, make this stop” at a few points towards the end.

Right, how do I rate it? The train and the seeming impossibilities leave me wanting to cut it some slack, despite the irritating nature of Inspector Arnold and some of the more tedious moments. I’d thought maybe two and a half stars out of five initially, but the positives along with the nice presentation and the Martin Edwards introduction in the British Library reissue earn it three stars. I mean, it’s all clever enough, and complex enough, just a bit dry.

We submit this reviews for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘train’ category:

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt, England, Friday's Forgotten Book, John Rhode / Miles Burton, Locked Room Mystery, London. Bookmark the permalink.

78 Responses to DEATH IN THE TUNNEL (1936) by Miles Burton

  1. Colin says:

    Reblogged this on Riding the High Country and commented:
    I try, as much as possible, to keep my writing on this site focused on cinema and film related material. However, that doesn’t mean my interests extend no further. My friend Sergio is a regular visitor and commenter here and, seeing as his site is a bit more flexible in its approach than mine, he was kind enough to allow me to contribute my thoughts on a novel a while back and left the offer open. As a result I took him up on that and if you follow the links in this post you can see my latest effort. And while you’re there, you could do a whole lot worse than browse around his ever excellent site.

  2. tracybham says:

    An excellent review, Colin. I haven’t read anything by this author. I agree, any story featuring a train is good, but I don’t like dry novels either. I may try this one some time because of the train, or maybe some other book by the author.

  3. OK, as something of a Rhode veteran, thought I’d chip in.

    Interesting that you focus on Arnold, as the series sleuth is supposed to be Merrion, whose also pretty bland, but Rhode/Burton/Street was often more fond of his copper than his amateur – there are several Dr Priestley tales where Priestley is barely in it and doesn’t help much anyway.

    But also, I should say that this isn’t the best of the series by a long shot. The other BL reprint, Secret of High Eldersham is a lot more fun (although it is a bit bonkers) and most other Merioneth tales that I’ve read, apart from the deeply dull Early Morning Murder, are better than this. At one point, Rhode had a really tight formula – problem presented, how explained, why explained, who explained – and this one fits that formula perfectly.

    Unfortunately, it’s hard to find many Burton or Rhode books. There are some ebooks available now but they’ve just been stolen from the Internet Archive, where they shouldn’t have been in the first place. But do give Rhode a second chance. He’s written some clunkers, but when he’s on form, he can be very good. Never on Carr’s level though… Here’s a few reviews to pass the time.

  4. TomCat says:

    I think the general opinion is that the ones written under his own name, John Rhode, are better than those that appeared under his “Miles Burton” byline.

    Personally, I liked the Dr Lancelot Priestley novels more than the few Merrion/Arnold titles I got my hands on, but Death in the Tunnel was undoubtedly the best Burton so far. Loved the how-dun-it/sealed carriage aspect of the plot.

    I hope you’ll like the next one better.

  5. 282daniele says:

    In Italy this novel has been published some year ago. There’s an italian publishing house that like Doug Greene’s Crippen & Landru, publishes only mysteries. It’s Polillo Editore. Among the several titles, there’re for example this by Rhodes also : Nel buio della galleria (Death in the Tunnel ).

  6. 282daniele says:

    Sergio sono io che ho citato queste cose. Sul mio blog a presto pubblicherò un articolo proprio su questa casa editrice italiana che pubblica mysteries. L’ultimo in ordine di tempo, qualche giorno fa, è stato un romanzo di Keverne. Sono libri in cartaceo e non digitali e quindi vanno bene per te e per tutti coloro non solo ialiani che conoscono anche l’italiano. Uns messe di titoli succulenti. Ciao. Piero

  7. I’ve read a couple of Miles Burton mysteries and enjoyed them. The 1920s and 1930s featured plenty of “puzzle” novels (especially Ellery Queen’s and Agatha Christie’s) that are fun to read in moderation.

  8. Sergio – I enjoyed the review and will be heading over to RIDING THE HIGH COUNTRY to read more of Colin’s posts. Thanks.

  9. Matt Paust says:

    Speaking of firsts, this is the first review I have read of anything written by Street/Burton/Rhode. Alas, I almost dozed off just imagining how dull poor Arnold must be.

    • Admittedly this may not be the ideal place to start but there are so few in print to choose from that I think the very nice BL edition will do nicely!

    • Colin says:

      All we really learn about Arnold is that he’s an Inspector at Scotland Yard – how he attained that rank is something I’d say could stand some looking into itself.

  10. All that said, and I think I’ve read one Rhode, but don’t recall which, it’s the cover that draws me in. I really love it, and it would make a great poster. Fine review. Thank you.

  11. Nicely reviewed, Colin. I’d like to read Miles Burton at some point. There are times when I read novels, including detective-mystery, which are mild and nondramatic in their overall tone (if that is, in fact, the right way to put it). I suspect Street/Burton had a bit of fun writing this novel and he probably meant it to be “dry” so as not to vex the reader too much.

    • Colin says:

      Thanks, Prashant. It’s not a bad book really, even if I sound negative about some parts of it. I think there’s probably more good than bad there and I zipped through it at a reasonable pace – with really poor books it feels like I can never finish them.

    • I’d agree with that Prashant – there are certainly TV shows that i watch in that way. Trouble is, for me, now, reading time is just so precious …

  12. I read this and felt like you did, Colin. Thanks for the in-depth review – jeez, I wish I could do this sort of thing. I think Cecil Street is such a terrific name I wonder why he bothered with a pseudonym – maybe for genre reasons? P.S. I too LOVE train mysteries. But I’m not loving the idea of Kenneth Branagh as Poirot – no matter how much I love him as an actor.

    • Well, I am very curious to see how Branagh does in it – fact it, I always thought that Finney was not that well cast in the 1974 version (too young, too thin, too mannered as a result, not to mention all that make-up he had to work under). The film works of course, mainly for its wonderful cast, the great decor and the scintillating score.

    • Colin says:

      Glad you liked the write up, Yvette, and I’m also pleased to hear your feelings on the book chimed with mine – such things always make one feel vindicated.
      I think pseudonyms were just something very common then – mind you, if I were to publish a book myself, I think I might choose a pseudonym too.

  13. Ronald Smyth says:

    When you write 140 books there’s bound to be some clunkers.

  14. Pingback: #251: Death in the Tunnel (1936) by Miles Burton | The Invisible Event

  15. Pingback: 2017 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Wrap-up | Tipping My Fedora

  16. Pingback: My Book Notes: Death in the Tunnel, 1936 (Desmond Merrion # 13) by Miles Burton – A Crime is Afoot

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