REVIEW: Death on a Branch Line – Andrew Martin
Last month I bought myself the complete box set of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Not only had nobody thought to buy me them previously (!) but this formed a very important part of my *research*.
The research period of any novel or series is an odd one. It’s extremely flexible in terms of what you (I) can justify as research. For instance, I am going to write mysteries set in Victorian Leeds, so I am researching plot structure, and the time period. So I can binge watch 6 episodes of Poirot and justify it as working, even if I’ve made my way through the best part of a bottle of wine while I was at it. I’m looking at the structure, darling.
Hastings is such a useless piece of posh fluff #poirot
— Katherine Holt (@MissHwrites) February 12, 2016
OK, I admit this is stretching it, but my goodness, Poirot is cracking good fun. David Suchet is tremendous as the little Belgian, and I’ve reignited my childhood crush on Captain Hastings (he’s just so nice, why don’t the ladies like him!?). Not to mention the tour de force that is Miss Lemon, my secretarial idol.
In fairness to myself, I have learned a lot about character development from these binges, come to a few realisations on plotting and structure, and on what works for me and doesn’t. Which is great – just think how much I’ll learn watching the remaining 40+ episodes! Oh yes, Poirot is exercising my little grey cells. Also discovered through the wonderful medium that is Twitter that Hugh Fraser (Captain Hastings) has a thriller coming out soon.
But my research hasn’t solely comprised of Poirot. Even I can’t justify that. It’s also extended to a Victorian mystery, Death on a Branch Line.
One scorching day in York Train Station, Jim Stringer, railway detective, finds himself in conversation with a condemned man. Not convinced of the man’s guilt, Jim believes him when he warns of another death in the offing at his home, in the isolated village of Adenwold. In the company of his wife, Lydia, and in the middle of a scorching heatwave, Jim takes to the rails to investigate.
Now then. This was really, really good. A character-driven mystery which was genuinely perplexing and chocka with historical detail. There’s a quote on the back that aligned it with a BBC serial, and that is exactly how it was. A three parter around Christmas, perhaps? Come on, BBC! Get to it!
Perhaps the reason this hasn’t happened yet is one of the main reasons I liked it. Liberal amounts of swearing.
And it works. This is written first person, from Jim’s PoV, and all that swearing sounds completely natural. A railway detective working on a difficult case in a heatwave would be dropping F-bombs all over the place.
Even better than the liberal amounts of swearing (and I never thought I would write those words) was the wonderful and three-dimensional portrayal of Lydia, Jim’s wife. This is particularly notable given that she is referred to as Lydia about three times, and all the rest as “the wife”. She’s a suffragette, which Jim is tolerant of, but doesn’t understand, and absolutely pivotal in the solving of the case. And here’s the thing, Jim treats her as you’d fully expect a railway detective to treat his wife. He assumes she’s wrong about things and is speaking out of turn, while at the same time being very proud of her, very much in love with her, and not a little bit in awe. What I was left with was the impression of a woman who I admired, and wanted to know more about. This is one book in a Jim Stringer series, and I will read more only because I want to know more about Lydia.
I’m not sure what made me pick this up in the first place, because I have a “railways are boring” mentality, but this book actually made railways interesting to me. Perhaps I don’t just like lady books after all…!