Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers, May Edition, Week 1: On a Sordid Track: Death on the Last Train (1948), by George Bellairs

All aboard as the redoubtable Tuesday Night Bloggers take you on a murder tour during the month of May. We will be looking at detective novels which include travel, holidaying, and/or transportation in some significant way.  Here are links to posts by contributors to the Club:

Death in Clairvoyance, by Josephine Bell (Moira Redmond, Clothes in Books)

Holiday and Travel Mysteries Top Five (Kate Jackson, Cross Examining Crime)

The Holidays of Carolus Deene (Bev Hankins, My Reader's Block)

If It's Tuesday, This Must Be....Murder! Crime on Vacation (Brad Friedman, Ah Sweet Mystery)

Deliver Us from Wolves, Leonard Holton (John Norris, Pretty Sinister Books)

Only the first chapter of George Bellairs' Death on the Last Train (1948) actually takes place on a train, but its grimy cloud of sordidness hangs over the entire short novel.  As the book opens a "fagged out" Inspector Littlejohn, Bellairs' series sleuth, is traveling in connection with a case on the Salton-to-Ellinborne train, which, we learn, is in quite a sorry state:

jacket by the great
Arthur Hawkins, Jr.
The train consisted of three rickety wooden coaches in disgraceful condition.  The three first-class compartments were dirtier than the thirds.  The lighting was of the kind introduced at the outbreak of war when a glass globe covering a small bulb in the middle of the roof was blacked all over and then the light allowed cautiously to percolate through a glorified pinhole.  The whole sorry contraption was drawn by an aged tank locomotive with steam leaking from every joint.

We are a long way from Agatha Christie's Orient Express: no international cast of Russian princesses, Hungarian counts, wealthy American matrons and nosy dapper Belgians here!

When a shot rings out and a passenger, Timothy Bellis, if found dead in a compartment on the stopped train, Littlejohn finds himself marshaled into yet another murder investigation.  The dead man was a notorious adulterer  and there was much bad feeling against him in the declining town of Salton, where he had been the victim of a series of increasingly threatening letters.

an earlier. altogether brighter
 train jacket byArthur Hawkins, Jr.
Littlejohn essentially does what he did in his Death in the Night Watches (1945): he goes around interviewing a series of individuals until he finally gets information which points out the murderer for him.  Utterly lacking is the kind of complex murder plot you so often get in, say, the transportation mysteries of Freeman Wills Crofts.

What Bellairs offers in the place of plot complexity is a series of satirical portraits of the townspeople of Salton.  In contrast with those etched in the dull and bland Night Watches, the acid portrayals in Last Train often are amusing, but there's a cruelty to them as well which some might find distasteful. So many people are mocked for physical attributes--squints, pendulous breasts, poor teeth, bad breath, etc.--one gets the feeling that Bellairs sees Salton as some sort of circus freak show.

I have read two additional, very early, Bellairs detective novels, one of which is being reprinted by the British Library, and these are both, I'm happy to say, superior to both Night Watches and Last Train.  Indeed, both of them are really rather good.

I shall be reviewing these two books here soon. However, if you're not looking for plot complexity and you don't mind the nastiness to much of the satire in Last Train, you might well enjoy the bumpy ride.


  1. I just love mysteries set on trains! And ships as well. Even the handful set on aircraft are quite interesting although I have my reservations about the last one of those I read - the decidedly bizarre Obelists Fly High.

  2. I've not read anything by this author, but like dfordoom I do love a train setting (even if they move off the train quite quickly...)and it sounds worth a look.

    1. Some of the book is definitely funny, but I think his earliest books are the stand-outs.