This 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.
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.
Miles 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: