Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

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.

34 thoughts on “Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui and this one does sound fun. I love books set on trains too – so atmospheric and the closed location can cause plenty of tension! It seems to me that Golden Age books do often fall into one of two camps, either a whodunnit or a whydunnit – and both can be equally fascinating!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed. It was actually a bit of change for me to read a mystery where the focus was on the ‘who and how’ as opposed to the ‘why’. I’ve been reading quite a lot of books with a strong psychological edge in recent months, so this one came as a nice change. It’s good fun, an enjoyable wind-down read (if that makes sense). I think you’d like it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s another good one in terms of the setting. Hotels, too – I find it hard to resist a book set in a boarding house or hotel. It’s the mix of people, I think – all thrown together in a place that’s guaranteed to lead to some interesting interactions.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I have a copy of that one to look forward to. The Girls of Slender Means has a boarding house setting too. Well, it’s actually a large building converted into dorms and a number of rooms, but the same principle applies. Clearly Muriel Spark was rather fond of these places as well.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s an enjoyable little puzzler, even if the final solution turns out to be a little far-fetched! (All I shall say is that the tunnel is crucial.) What I really liked about this one was the relationship between Inspector Arnold and his sidekick, Merrion. In true Golden-Age mystery style, they work very well together as partners, bouncing ideas and evidence-based theories between one another as they work their way through the case. It’s all good fun.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha – and that would be no bad thing in my book! Seriously though, I far prefer these vintage mysteries/noir novels to crime stories set in the present day. Anything too recent tends to give me the creeps, especially if the story goes down the psychological thriller route. I just find them way too unsettling!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re welcome, Guy. I’ve made a note of some of the others you liked – particularly Antidote to Venom, which (as far as I can recall) was one of your favourites. Still looking out for it in the secondhand shops as the BLCCs turn up fairly regularly around here. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick up a copy at some point.

      Reply
  2. FictionFan

    Aah, sounds like another good’un from the BL! I have another Miles Burton on my TBR – The Secret of High Eldersham – because it appears on Martin Edward’s list of 100 Classic Crime Novels. I think it stars the same detective duo.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is – as long as you like puzzle-based mysteries! My worry with the BLLCs has always been the question of whether the later books in the series will live up to the high standard established by the initial releases. Death in the Tunnel isn’t particularly suspenseful or psychological in nature, but it is an enjoyable little read – a nice break from heavier stuff. I’ve heard good things about High Eldersham, so I’m sure you’ve got something interesting to look forward to with that one!

      Reply
  3. Caroline

    Seems like you can’t go wrong with books from this collection. Usually I like the setting but since reading Murder on the Orient Express last year – and not liking it – I’m a bit less keen. I don’t think they are similar though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s very interesting about Murder on the Orient Express. Oddly enough, I’ve never read it, probably because I’m too familiar with the film to go back and try the book. What didn’t you like about it?

      Reply
  4. bookbii

    Ah, there’s something lovely about a nice old-fashioned, not hugely gruesome, whodunit. And the train setting is definitely appealing, as you say there’s something very compelling about stories set on trains. The British Crime Classics always seem to me very giftable books with their lovely covers and crowd-pleasing stories, it always makes me think of dark nights snuggled under a blanket with a warm fire and a glass of something toasty on hand. Comforting and cosy, despite the murderous undertones :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, indeed, There’s absolutely nothing frightening or grisly here! Everything is rather gentle and cosy, especially the dynamic between Inspector Arnold and his partner, Merrion. As you say, the BLCCs are ideal for the long, dark nights ahead, just right for a roaring fire and a nice glass of pinot noir – my mind always turns to pinot once the autumn chill starts to kick in. :)

      Reply
  5. Max Cairnduff

    I’m not actually a massive fan of cosy crime, but oddly enough I have read one of these – The Secret of High Eldersham which FictionFan mentions (review at mine). It features the same detecting due and it’s notable that all I recall of their characters from that is that the policeman is thorough and professional and the amateur a highly competent gentleman (rather than a player as it were, to make the old gentlemen and players distinction) fond of adventure but prone to leaving the detailed work to others. This sounds rather similar.

    Eldersham I read because it has a folk horror element to it, featuring claims of rural witchcraft and black magic cults and the like (all of which I can be quite fond of). Looking back at my review though I see I thought it all got a bit unlikely and I note this does too.

    I might read it as it sounds fun and I’ve already read one Burton, but it’s not pressing certainly. Lovely cover though. I mean, all this series have great covers but even so that’s a particularly fine one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That sounds like a good summary of Inspector Arnold and his partner Merrion. I like the way they work together in this – one drawing on the evidence and known facts, the other thinking more laterally to tackle the mystery from a different angle. It’s an little enjoyable book but by no means essential if you get my drift. I do recall your review of High Eldersham and the folk horror element, a characteristic that sets it apart from other some mysteries in this series. I may well pick it up at some point especially given the fact that it features the same pair of sleuths. It’s always nice to have something like this on hand for a duvet day. Like you, I do love the cover of this one – the styling is very attractive in an old-school sort of way.

      Reply
  6. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  7. janetemson

    This was the first of the British Library crime classics I read. I’m currently part way through my second and looking forward to discovering more. Great review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great – I’ll keep an eye out for your review. The John Bude mysteries are most enjoyable, especially The Cornish Coast Murder. It’s a mystery that uses its coastal setting to good effect.

      Reply

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