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This first novel in Edward Marston's popular Victorian detective series is an undemanding, entertaining read. It has all the basic ingredients for a good historical thriller, with plenty of twists and period interest. The book should appeal to anyone who enjoys a well told period detective yarn.
The usual suspects are all here - the smart police detective with his trusty sidekick and obstructive superior officer, the criminal mastermind with assorted villains, plus an element of romantic interest thrown in for good measure. Add steam engines and train robbers and you have a potentially winning formula.
I had no great expectations of this book. It was chosen for me as a gift because I had enjoyed Andrew Martin's 'steam detective' series set in Edwardian England, and this must have seemed a promising title. Not being a devotee of Marston's previous historical fiction set in earlier times, I was surprised how much I did enjoy this.
~~Anoraks not required~~
This is not really a book for trainspotters or steam 'anoraks', though there is always something atmospheric about train journeys in fiction, and the historical context is particularly interesting here. The setting is 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace with its celebration of engineering triumphs. It is also a time of dramatic expansion for the railways and considerable tension between entrepreneurs and conservative landowners.
~~An original plot~~
The story involves aggravated train robbery, kidnap, murder, blackmail and destruction. Everything unfolds at a cracking pace. The investigation takes us to the Royal Mint, to England's industrial heartland (by train, of course), to London's darkest Dickensian corners, and ultimately to the thriving port of Bristol via the newfangled train-line. But The Railway Detective is not a straight 'whodunnit'. For me the main interest lies in establishing the motive, plus the thrill of the chase in a murderous game of cat and mouse with the culprits.
While it may at times feel more like a modern police procedural than, say, a Conan Doyle, it still works as a ripping yarn with an original storyline.
~~With colourful characters~~
This first book of the series establishes the main characters, including Inspector Colbeck and his colleagues in the recently established Scotland Yard. Colbeck is something of a maverick, with exceptional deductive skills, a gentleman and also a bit of a dandy. In solving this mystery he becomes known popularly as 'The Railway Detective'. We are told something of his family background, which lends insight into the psychology of the main villain of the piece.
Other reasonably rounded characters include a controversial MP at the centre of the intrigue, an injured engine driver and his beautiful daughter.
Marston leaves plenty of scope for further character development in subsequent adventures.
~~Anachronisms, anomalies and other animals~~
Apart from a few minor 'typos' which seem to have eluded the proof-reader, my only quibble might be with the dialogue, which sometimes sounds unlike mid-nineteenth century English. I can't vouch for the accuracy of some of the technical detail but it sounds convincing enough.
~~Availability & price~~
Paperback currently available from Amazon for £5.99.
Kindle version: £4.79.
Other formats available.
The railway detective
Publisher: Allison & Busby, 2005
A ripping yarn - most enjoyable - looking forward to reading more in the series.
[© SteveS001 2013. A version of this original review may appear on other review sites]