As well as my title piece I have a couple of important links to share. I have mentioned the Railway Detective, Inspector Robert Colbeck, in various previous posts without going into much detail. Today I am devoting a whole post to him and his exploits, which will be the first of a three such posts. WARNING: THE REST OF THIS POST IS FULL OF SPOILERS.
THE RAILWAY DETECTIVE
BOOK ONE: THE RAILWAY DETECTIVE
This book, with the title that becomes a supertitle for the whole series, is the one that introduces Inspector Colbeck, his sidekick Sergeant Leeming, their irascible and dictatorial ex-army boss Superintendent Edward Tallis. The opening crime of the series features train driver Caleb Andrews as one of the victims, and also introduces us therefore to his remarkable daughter Madeleine who becomes one of the key characters in the series.
The initial crime, while serious enough in itself is but a part of much wider scheme hatched by a stalwart opponent of the railway network whose initial hostility to the new development has been inflamed beyond the point of insanity by the death of his wife which he blames on the railways. Another element of the master plan was to sabotage the Great Exhibition by blowing up the locomotives that formed a big part of it.
It is after Colbeck has protected the Great Exhibition and brought the villains to justice that the nickname by which he will be known for evermore “The Railway Detective” is bestowed on him. This book also introduces yet another running theme, the permanent friction between Colbeck and Tallis which regularly flares into open flames.
BOOK TWO: THE EXCURSION TRAIN
A murder committed on an excursion train (hence the title) leads to the uncovering of a grotesque miscarriage of justice in which the wrong person was hanged for a murder and the unmasking of the person who saw someone hanged in his place.
Madeleine Andrews provides her first unofficial service to Scotland Yard, Colbeck making use of her communication skills and her sex to gain extra information from a female who he feels has not told him all that she might. Knowing his Superintendent’s view of women, Colbeck is careful to make sure that Tallis does not find out about this.
The details that emerge of the first murder victim, particularly those associated with his role as hangman (hence the trail to the miscarriage of justice), are such as render him as unsympathetic a murder victim as any in detective fiction (with the possible exception of the loathsome Enoch J Drebber in A Study in Scarlet).
Time for my first picture (delayed because my copies of the first three books in this series are in omnibus form)…
BOOK THREE: THE RAILWAY VIADUCT
The viaduct of the title is the Sankey Viaduct near Liverpool, and the story begins with someone being thrown out of a train and over the side of the viaduct to his death. It so happens that an accomplished artist was present preparing to paint a picture of the train crossing the viaduct, so as well as spoken evidence Colbeck gets a clear picture of the scene.
When it emerges that the victim was a French railway engineer making a clandestine visit to Liverpool, Colbeck’s follow up action takes him to France, where with the regular assistance of Leeming and the unapproved assistance of Brendan Mulryne he thwarts a sabotage scheme intended to prevent the completion of a railway there.
A fanciful sketch by a second fine artist, Madeleine Andrews, fires a synapse in the Colbeck brain that puts him wise to the motive for the crime.
It turns out that the scheme is the brainchild of an embittered old man who fought at the battle of Waterloo, and who was unable to adapt to the notion that the French were no longer deadly enemies. It was a planned extension of the French railway to Cherbourg, a port and the site of an arsenal, that our villain could not stomach.
BOOK 4: RAILWAY TO THE GRAVE
This one opens with a particularly gruesome suicide (achieved by walking into the path of a train). In the course of investigating the crime Colbeck discovers that the victim was driven to suicide by the murder of his wife. The locals are all certain that the husband was the killer and committed suicide because he was unable to live with his actions, and have closed their minds to other possibilities. Colbeck is able to establish that the husband was not the killer of his wife, and to locate the real killer.
This book also features a battle with a particularly unpleasant specimen of the clergy who is determined to bar the suicide victim from burial alongside his wife, to the extent of defying the law. It turns out that this person has been responsible for sending poison pen letters (dictated to his wife, so it is her handwriting that Colbeck identifies) to the man who killed himself, so Colbeck is able to force him to resign his ministry.
These books contain a wonderful mix of fast paced action, plot twists and a large measure of railway lore. The characters of Colbeck, Leeming, Tallis, and Caleb and Madeleine Andrews, who feature in every book in the series are well developed. While it would be pretty difficult for a combination of detective fiction and railways not to appeal to me, nevertheless, these books are particularly outstanding.
Just the two links today, firstly to the latest on the Justice for Kayleb campaign and secondly to a petition that now has somewhere around three million signatures calling for an end to the piece of barbarity known as the Yulin Dog Meat Festivial