November, a dark night as a train heads through the countryside. Halfway through a dark tunnel, a red lights causes the train to briefly slow and then changes to green, letting the train resume its normal speed. An odd occurrence, as there was nobody working in the tunnel that evening and there isn’t a signal in it. But what is even odder is that Sir Wilfred Saxonby, who was sitting in a first class carriage, is found dead, shot by the gun lying on the floor. The carriage is locked, so it was obviously suicide… but no motive can be found.
Enter Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard, and his crime-solving cohort, Desmond Merrion. Convinced that something is wrong because of the smallest thing – Saxonby’s ticket is missing. But will Arnold’s investigations be able to unmask a cunning murderer?
This is the fifteenth book that Cecil Street aka John Rhode under the pseudonym Miles Burton. In fact it’s the fifteenth in seven years (he actually had sixteen published between 1930 and 1936) along with seventeen under the John Rhode name. Busy boy. It’s an interesting choice to be reprinted by the British Library – I’m really not sure if the BL chose it or it was offered by the traditionally reluctant Street estate.
It’s a different kettle of fish than most Golden Age books that I’ve read. Although we are presented with an impossible crime, the solution is broken down step by step by solid investigation, first the mechanics of the crime and then the who and why (although if anyone reading it can guess the details of the why, I’d be impressed). It’s the tale of an investigation which plays to Street’s strengths in plotting. The characters are bland in the extreme, in particular Merrion who remains a cipher, but by concentrating on the investigation, this weakness can be overlooked. In some ways, the closest in tone that I’ve read is the god-awful Pit-Prop Syndicate by Freeman Wills Crofts – this one is light-years better than that though.
Merrion is pretty annoying though. It seems that Arnold is the one with the ideas at times – you really don’t want your supersleuth, on being presented with the problem, to have an “it’s probably suicide, but I guess I’ll take a look” approach. Show some enthusiasm, man!
The locked room isn’t desperately exciting, by the way. While not at the “Wire Cage” level of silly, one has to wonder if there were easier ways to kill Saxonby.
As I’ve said, inspired by the BL reprints, I’m embarking on a Rhode-A-Thon (follow the hashtag #IReadRhode on twitter) with this as the first. I wonder how this ranks in the quality of Rhode’s books. I’m guessing it’s average – intricate plotting let down by a silly scheme and paper-thin characterisation. Which sounds like I’m having a go, but it’s still a good read that grips the attention throughout. I might come back to this one and say more when I’ve others to compare it to. In the meantime, however, this one is Well Worth A Look.