Death on a Branch Line by Andrew Martin

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Death on a Branch Line by Andrew Martin

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An old-fashioned rural thriller for the traffic policeman of the 1910s-set series allows for a breath of fresh air for the cycle but still doesn't reach the end of the line with any superlative quality.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: June 2008
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571229673

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Like all the best literary detectives, Jim Stringer is a mixture of know-all and know-nothing. As an ex-railway worker he can identify when the local young firemen are over-stoking their engines. He can't figure out why, though, in the sweltering heat of the summer of 1911. He is well used to solving heinous crimes – this is the fifth book he's been in, after all. But he is not used to criminals stopping over in the York station he works at as a traffic policeman, on their way to the gallows. And when he asks of a condemned aristocrat if the man did it, he is certainly not used to the answer being I don't know.

With a wife wanting to have a weekend away in Scarborough, Jim finds enough urgent clues in the words and behaviour of the condemned to divert him to the rural idyll of Adenwold, where the said criminal was found guilty of murdering his own father. The soon-to-be-hung says there is truth that needs to be revealed, before someone else dies without it passing their lips.

Only, upon entering Adenwold – a village mostly deserted by the populace who have successfully reached Scarborough for their weekend jollies together – Stringer is faced with a most rum bunch of people staying behind, or arriving, and any depth to the mystery can be reached by the oddness abounding there. Can he prevent the truth dying with a second man for whom death seems certain?

What we have, given that premise, is a bit more Agatha Christie than you would think. It seems far too many tropes of thrillers of old have joined us in this 2008 release – the country pile in the woods, the cricket match, the soirees with dress codes, the old army types getting in the way. If people didn't liberally use the F and C words you might well expect Marple or someone to turn up with spy-glass in hand and put things together.

This volume is however a swinging sea-change in the series, especially given the gritty, grim north of the previous book. Here the rural characters, the heat of the oppressive summer of mystery, and the countryside itself, all appear very well portrayed. Added to everything is the lively entity that is the rumoured behaviour of German agents – that country might not be involved in WWI yet, of course, but they appear to be active in territories not their own.

I accused the last book of having too little for Stringer to do – and in a way that's the same here. I know the author, were he to read this, would just shake his head and think he cannot win, and I will accede that here it is the partnership of both Stringers – the wife as Lydia is so often called, and Jim, sparking off each other, falling out, making up, making love and primarily being bewildered by all the red herrings they are given – that is at the fore. It's very nicely done if truth be told – the pair makes for such a pleasant partnership it seems to be a disappointment that last time round she was just staying at home with her liberal, employment for women ideas, and a missed opportunity grasped firmly here in redress.

I've had to consider the thriller here, however, and I think I'm not giving too much away to say that again the nature of it, and the climax Andrew Martin has conspired, force Stringer onto the back foot, just as things get most meaty. There is still a sense of high drama to the closing pages, and the full truth which won't of course come out in one solid lump, but Stringer is hampered from taking things by the throat and working everything out for himself.

That I guess is the biggest disappointment, for everything else is fine – the unusual characters and goings-on are all welcome, especially as this is still firmly pitched as a comedy thriller (although less funny than it thinks it is). The emphasis is on the character of the Stringers working together (mostly) on the exceedingly rum collection of people, and although the unintelligible barman becomes most legible for one line and one line only, Martin seems fully in control of his reveals, with his personnel and placing adding to the enjoyment to be had.

This then is a much more successful book for me than the previous volume, yet still with minor flaws. The title is a bit of a misnomer, giving more drama to the book than really exists. The train elements of the series – so crucial to everything last time and at the beginning here (is there much point at all in the initial chapters' slow build-up to the case being revealed?) – are taking a back seat, and in their place a lot of rustic tropes and stereotypes that try and give the book a zesty post-modernism but still flag towards the seen-before, known-of-old.

That said, rather cruelly perhaps in the eyes of fans of the series, there are pleasures aplenty to be had, and the book should certainly be considered by fans of the genre, trying perhaps Martin's jolly entertainments for the first time. I can't say now whether this book or the prequel is more representative of the cycle, but I can say this is superior, and for thriller and mystery readers is more worthy of recommendation.

I would like to thank Faber and Faber for sending the Bookbag a review copy.

If this book appeals to you then we think that you might also enjoy An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson.

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