When Malcolm is finally delivered to the crematorium, his shelves will be replete with off-the-press complete sets of good teccies and similars: currently (and alphabetically) Colin Bateman, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Alan Furst, Carl Hiaasen, Philip Kerr, Donna Leon, Henning Mankell, Ian Rankin, Martin Cruz Smith … just some of the regular annual upgrades.
The half-dozen of Malcolm Pryce‘s Louie Knight sequence is safely shelved there. So is the oeuvre of Jasper fforde (next one due in July). The Pert Young Piece and Malcolm have high hopes of Ben Aaronovitch (Whispers Under Ground on long-standing order, and overdue).
Amazon delivered the latest of which this very morning.
It was a decade back, when naïf Jim, sometime boy porter at Baytown (a.k.a. Robin Hood’s Bay), first arrived on the scene:
We came into Platform One at King’s Cross, which was as I had expected, but what I had not expected was that half of London would be there, and most of them attempting to force me into the Ladies’ Waiting Room, where I had no right nor any desire to be.
When I finally struggled free, the first thing I saw was the road packed with darting waggons, then, over the road from King’s Cross, and three times the size, St Pancras. I could not believe there had ever been so many bricks in the world – it must have had more than the Eskdale viaduct and I knew for a fact there were more than five million in that. The clock said five to three; I turned back and looked at the clock on King’s Cross, and that said five after, and I thought: now, that is strange, because it was impossible to imagine either the Midland or the Great Northern making a bloomer over the time, of all things, but one of them must have, and it seemed that I was only getting in everybody’s way by standing there and fretting over it.
Jim was on his way to Nine Elms Locomotive Shed to start work as an engine cleaner:
It took me one day to realise that the quickest way from Waterloo to Nine Elms Locomotive Shed was along the river. On that first morning, however, I attempted to walk there through ordinary streets, following the viaducts whenever I thought I might not be going right, but this proved no simple matter since they were tangled up with the buildings. The dismal streets were full of dark warehouses instead of ordinary houses, and full of men and their horses and waggons bringing things into Waterloo or taking them away and making a great din about it, and what with the noise, the strangeness of the streets and my fearfulness of being late, I was in a very fretful condition when I finally came upon the main gates of Nine Elms.
It was Monday 16 November 1903, bang on seven o’clock, and I could’ve done with some cocoa inside me. I walked past a pub called the Turnstile, ever closer to those golden gates, although they were far from golden, of course.
By the second book, The Blackpool Highflyer, it’s Whit Sunday of 1905 and Jim has risen to fireman on the Lancashire and Yorkshire. Hind’s Mill at Halifax are off on a seaside excursion to Blackpool (as above):
My driver, Clive Carter, was standing on the platform below. Further below than usual, for the engine that had been waiting for us at the shed that morning was, by some miracle or mistake, one of Mr Aspinall’s famous Highflyers, number 1418. These were the very latest of the monsters, and I hadn’t reckoned on having one under me for another ten years at least.
‘Now don’t break it,’ John Ellerton, shed super, had said to Clive and me that morning as he’d walked us over to it at six, with the sweat already fairly streaming off us.
Atlantic class, the Highflyers were: 58 1/4 tons, high boiler, high wheel rims on account of 7-foot driving wheels, and high everything, including speed. It was said they’d topped a hundred many a time, though never yet on a recorded run. They were painted black, like any Lanky engine, so it was a hard job to make them shine, but you never saw one not gleaming. The Lanky cleaners got half a crown for three tank engines, but it was three bob for an Atlantic, and that morning Clive had given the lad an extra sixpence for a hexagon pattern on the buffer plates.
Eighteen months later, historically but annually on the publication schedule, and it’s The Lost Luggage Porter and Jim’s first day as a railway detective at York Station. The next two outings are Murder at Deviation Junction and Death on a Branch Line, both set in North Yorkshire. That has brought us to the summer of 1911.
Number six in the sequence is The Last Train to Scarborough. 1914: Detective Sergeant Jim Stringer is being pressed by his ambitious, lefty-but-upwardly-mobile suffragette wife to leave the railway and take a nice job as a solicitor’s clerk, and Jim doesn’t get on too well with his Chief Inspector. Instead Stringer is sent, disguised as a fireman, to find out why an engine driver went missing from a Scarborough guest house.
Inevitably, it’s war-time. Stringer signs up for the Railway Pals, the North Eastern Railway Battalion, and — amid the midst of the mud-and-blood of the Somme — Stringer is pulled out of the trenches to operate a small-gauge munitions train, just behind the Front Line. The twist in The Somme Stations is that Stringer is arrested as the murderer, that the story starts in medias res as badly-wounded Stringer lies in an Ilkley nursing home. By the end, things are looking up:
… That morning, the wife had come into my room with her portmanteau in her hand, and an opened letter tucked into the belt of her skirt, and I could see it was an army envelope. ‘Sorry for opening this,’ she said, being not in the least sorry.
She held the envelope over the counterpane of the bed, upended it, and three little cloth squares fell out directly. The letter floated down a moment later. Well, the pieces were diamond-shaped rather than square, and I showed the wife how they would fix onto a tunic sleeve.
‘Captain Stringer,’ she said, and she stood back, marvelling at me.
‘A field commission,’ I said, ‘they’re pretty rare.’
‘As an officer,’ said the wife, ‘if you came into the soldiers’ buffet at the station and had cakes with your tea on a Sunday afternoon, you’d have the silver service.’
What makes Martin’s Jim Stringer so readable is the obsessional detail: umbrellas seem to feature regularly, along with the weather. Here, for another passing sample, is the start of Part Two (Chapter Nine) of The Last Train to Scarborough:
The North End shed, a quarter mile beyond the station mouth, was where the Scarborough engines were stabled. I felt a proper fool, approaching the Shed Superintendent’s office with my kit bag, just as I had in the days when I’d been working with a company rule book in my inside pocket, and not as some species of actor…
I wore my great-coat on top of my second best suit. I had on a white shirt and white necker, and I carried in my kit bag a change of shirt and a tie in case the boarding house should turn out to be a more than averagely respectable one. I carried no rule book, but on my suit-coat lapel I’d pinned the company badge, this being the North Eastern Railway crest about one inch across. All company employees were given one on joining, and the keener sorts would wear it every day. You’d be more likely to see a driver or a fireman wearing his badge than a booking office clerk because the footplate lads took more pride in their work.
Now we have The Baghdad Railway Club, and it’s 1917 …
… and this weekend Malcolm has something better to do than this Jubilee thing.