The Railway Detective is the first book in the series of the same name by Edward Marston.
Quick Review (read on for full review)
An interesting and well-described setting. A promising first book in a series. 3 / 5
Summary (from Goodreads)
London 1851. With the opening of the Great Exhibition at hand, interest is mounting in the engineering triumphs of the railways, but not everyone feels like celebrating… In an audacious attack, the London to Birmingham mail train is robbed and derailed, causing many casualties. Planned with military precision, this crime proves a challenge to Detective Inspector Robert Colbeck who fights to untangle a web of murder, blackmail and destruction. As Colbeck closes in on the criminal masterminds, events take an unexpected turn when the beautiful Madeleine, daughter of the injured train driver, becomes a pawn in the criminals’ game. With time running out, good and evil, new and old, battle against each other. But will the long arm of the law have speed on its side? The Railway Detective is an action-packed dip into murky 1850s London. Full of historical detail, unexpected twists and memorable characters, this is a mystery that will surprise you at every turn.
My favourite quote from this book was a description of the slum area of London known as Devil’s Acre:
Colbeck knew the area only too well. It was a favoured haunt of the criminal fraternity and notorious for its brothels and gambling dens…No decent or sensible man would even dare to venture into such a hazardous district.
(From The Railway Detective by Edward Marston, page 57)
Having already read the first few instalments in Edward Marston’s Elizabethan Bracewell Mysteries, which I love, I thought I would give another one of his popular historical series a try. With an interest in the Victorian period and having already enjoyed a number of stories based on or around trains (Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington and Carola Dunn’s Murder on The Flying Scotsman), I had high hopes for The Railway Detective…
I enjoyed the setting of this story, but unfortunately I didn’t really connect with the characters. Most of them came across as excessively aggressive and antagonistic, which I accept, given the areas these characters worked in and came from, is probably historically accurate, but it didn’t make for particularly enjoyable reading. And then there were the characters who had particular personality traits which were continually stressed, in very clear and basic terms. I’m not sure the points needed to be laboured as hard as they were. A reader can often work out which of the characters are bad and which are good.
The setting on the other hand, was well-described, vivid, and most importantly of all authentic. I could see the slums of Devil’s Acre, the orderliness of the police headquarters, the grand country estate, the trains, and perhaps my favourite of the settings, the Crystal Palace…
Was The Railway Detective really a mystery book though? I didn’t find it particularly mysterious as we are told pretty early on in the story who is behind the crime. Instead the narrative focuses on watching the case unfold. The reader gets to witness the detectives chase down the criminals, with the only questions being whether they will get away and what cost they might inflict upon the other characters before the book ends.
One of my favourite passages of the story was when Detective Inspector Colbeck’s copy of Bradshaw’s got a mention.
So, this was a bit of mixed review, and if I’m being honest, I was expecting a bit more from The Railway Detective. I’ve not yet warmed to the characters but the series does hold some promise that it will improve the further we get into it, I think. I will give the series another book or two to convince me whether I should stick with it or put it aside for good.