Like many other readers, I often find myself drawn to stories that take place on trains. There is something very appealing about this type of setting for a novel. Perhaps it’s the relatively intimate, self-contained nature of train compartments, an environment conducive to chance encounters and secret assignations. Maybe it’s the mix of people we brush up against during the journey, a disparate group of individuals, each with their own characteristics and idiosyncrasies. Or could it be the sense of continuous momentum involved, a feeling of journeying into the unknown whatever this may bring? In reality, I suspect it’s a combination of several factors – whatever it is, I find these stories hard to resist, especially if there’s a crime involved. All of which brings me to Miles Burton’s 1936 novel, Death in the Tunnel, a Golden Age mystery featuring a highly suspicious incident that takes place during a train journey.
As the novel opens, the 5 pm train from London’s Cannon Street is travelling to Stourford via its usual route. A little while after the train enters the Blackdown Tunnel, the train driver suddenly applies the breaks, causing the guard to commence a check of all the compartments to see if there has been an emergency on board. Shortly afterwards, the train begins to gather speed again, arousing the guard’s curiosity even further. As it turns out, the driver had seen a red light swinging in the middle of the tunnel, only for the light to change to green as the train slowed down and approached the source – a most peculiar occurrence, especially given the absence of any scheduled works on the line. Then, just as the train is pulling into Stourford, the guard discovers a passenger who seems to be in a bad way. On closer inspection at the station, it would appear that the man in question is in fact dead.
The station-master entered the compartment. “Hallo, it’s Sir Wilfred Saxonby from Helverden!” he exclaimed. “He went up by the 9.50 this morning, and his car is in the yard now to meet him. Whatever can be matter with him, I wonder?” 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. (p. 11)
At first sight, Sir Wilfred’s death appears to be a cut-and-dried case of suicide. On his arrival at the platform at Cannon Street station, Sir Wilfred had paid the guard a pound to be seated alone in a locked first-class compartment where he wouldn’t be disturbed during the trip home. A small pistol engraved with his initials was found close to the body in a position that would fit with the presumption of suicide. Furthermore, it transpires that Sir Wilfred’s son and daughter were out of the country at the time of his death – both had gone abroad at their father’s suggestion, possibly to spare their feelings over the nature of his death. Nevertheless, clear cut or not, it is always best to be thorough in these matters, and Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard is soon called in to take charge of enquiries.
Inspector Arnold doesn’t waste any time in getting down to business on the case, interviewing associates of Sir Wilfred’s and examining all the available evidence in a structured, methodical manner. In this endeavour, he is ably assisted by his close friend, the amateur detective, Desmond Merrion. As the pair begin to delve more deeply into the circumstances surrounding Sir Wilfred’s death, a number of puzzling details start to emerge, some of which suggest the possibility of murder as opposed to suicide. For instance, why was there no train ticket amongst Sir Wilfred’s belongings when the train compartment was searched? Who was the man seen leaving one of the first-class compartments just before the train entered the tunnel and where did he go? And perhaps most perplexing of all, who was operating the red and green lights seen by the driver as he travelled through the tunnel? On pondering the latter, Merrion begins to develop a hypothesis, one that raises several questions that prove rather tricky to answer.
“…However, let’s admit the bare possibility of there having been a man in the tunnel, who deliberately slowed down the train so that he would be able to board it.
“Now we pass on to the next point. In order that he could effect his purpose, it would be necessary that Saxonby should be travelling in a compartment by himself, and that his assailant should know which compartment this was. How could he have obtained the knowledge on either of these points? He might, it is true, have guessed that, for some reason with which he was acquainted, Saxonby would want to secure a compartment to himself. But how can he have known that Saxonby had been successful? Or, if he gambled on the probability of this success, how did he know which compartment it was? He couldn’t have seen Saxonby through the window, for that would almost certainly be obscured by the fumes from the engine.” (pp. 50-51)
By the way, this theory of Merrion’s doesn’t turn out to be true, but it does get the ball rolling on the pattern of the book – particularly the continual emergence of mysterious details and the development of various hypotheses, all of which point towards the possible murder of Sir Wilfred. And besides, those individuals who knew Sir Wilfred well can think of no reason why he would have committed suicide – the man had no business or money worries to speak of, so why would he have killed himself? By contrast, Sir Wilfred’s rather stubborn manner and his occasional lack of mercy in passing judgements as a Magistrate meant that he might have made a number of enemies over the years. As such, murder would appear to be a distinct possibility.
Death in the Tunnel is a mystery where the focus is on ‘who’ and ‘how’ as opposed to ‘why’. Burton is not particularly interested in exploring the psychology behind the crime, the perpetrator’s reasons for his or her actions. What’s key here is solving the intricate puzzle of how the murder was committed and by whom. In this regard, Death in the Tunnel is a very effective little puzzler, packed full of clues and a sprinkling of red herrings along the way.
Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion work perfectly well together as a team, their skills complementing one another very effectively. While Arnold tries to focus on the evidence and known facts, Merrion uses his highly developed powers of imagination and lateral thinking to develop possible scenarios as to what might have happened on the day. The combination of these talents is the key to the pair’s success.
“…Now, don’t you admit that I’ve solved your problem for you?”
“Solved the problem!” Arnold exclaimed. “You’ve made out a very convincing theory, I’ll admit that. But you haven’t produced a particle of proof in support of it.”
“I know that,” replied Merrion quietly. “I warned you before I started that I had no proof. You’ve got to dig away and find that for yourself. And at least I’ve suggested a dozen likely directions in which to dig…” (p. 211)
The final solution to the puzzle is rather intricate if a little convoluted in the end. Nevertheless, this turned out to be a most enjoyable read, a gentle vintage mystery in keeping with the style of the British Library Crime Classics collection.
Guy has also reviewed this book – you can find his post here.