As a rule, I give a lot of thought to what I choose to read. I read reviews, I read a few pages in the shop if possible, I give thought to what the novel is about and whether it is likely to be something that will interest me. As a result, it’s quite rare these days I read a novel and find it a disappointment.
Rare, but not unknown. Because of course I also try new writers or revisit writers I have not previously got on with, it’s important I think not to be too locked in to one’s existing tastes. Most often when I try a new writer I’m pleased with the result, Sam Selvon was new to me and I thought a wonderful discovery. Andrew Martin unfortunately I didn’t take to so well.
The novel in question is The Necropolis Railway, a historical crime novel by Andrew Martin, the first in what appears to be a very successful series. The novel is set in 1903 in the world of the railways, with the protagonist Jim Stringer being a young and idealistic railwayman come to London to work as an engine cleaner with a view to one day reaching the heady heights of a driver.
In choosing to read this book now I made two basic errors. Firstly, I have no interest in steam trains, therefore choosing a book clearly written around a love for them was not perhaps my best choice. Secondly, it is not best advised to read a book set in a fog-bound and freezing winter London while enduring high temperatures on the London tube. The real world surroundings work entirely counter to the atmosphere the novelist is seeking to achieve. In a sense then, I didn’t give this book a fair shot and that’s a shame. However, I don’t think I’d have taken to it anyway, though perhaps simply as I am not its target audience.
Without giving plot details away, which can be particularly important in crime fiction, Jim Stringer gets his start on the railways due to an introduction by a director of the board of the London and South Western Railway. On his arrival in London he rooms in a run down lodging with an at first unfriendly landlady and a ever increasing pool of rainwater on his room floor. His colleagues to a man seem to loathe him, for reasons slightly unclear at first but seemingly connected to the disappearance of the boy who held his new post before him. Jim has been attached to the Necropolis railway, a dedicated service to a vast and declining mass graveyard outside London whose commercial rationale has been undone but which continues regardless.
From there we get the usual series of murders and a vast array of possible villains, with our naive young hero struggling to tell friend from foe and suffering isolation as a result.
The book contains a wealth of railway and steam train information, as you might expect really. If you have any interest in such matters, this book will deliver on that front. It is plainly well researched and I felt quite confident in the author’s depiction of the steam train world. The author also did something very clever with language, the book is narrated by Jim Stringer and opens with a tone reminiscent of boy’s own fiction, slightly pompous and a bit oblivious to the complexities of the world. Jim is an unreliable narrator, but not very unreliable, it is often plainer to us what is going on around him than it is to him and it is clear we are intended to be able to see what Jim himself occasionally misses.
As the book continues, Jim matures and as he does so the language slowly changes. Swear words are introduced into the text, more slang creeps in (authentic period slang as best I could tell), essentially the narrative voice of the novel develops as Jim develops and that I thought was both unusual and interesting.
London itself is well evoked, period oddities such as kicking gangs, the peculiar language of the prostitutes of the day, the heirarchies of the railway men and their particular privileges, all of this is brought to life without falling into the trap of interrupting the narrative for exposition. Jim’s London is easy to picture (when you’re not sweating on the tube anyway) and feels like a real place and that verismilitude for many fans of historical crime is a critical issue and central to their enjoyment of the work in question.
Unfortunately, much else didn’t work for me. The plot is moderately complex, but I guessed the broad outlines of the outcome fairly early. More seriously, the endgame of the novel depends hugely on coincidence and protagonist stupidity. Jim puts himself in danger, is saved by blind luck (albeit previously flagged blind luck to be fair), his nemesis reappears (that really isn’t a spoiler, you can’t fail but see it coming) and Jim is saved again by a huge piece of chance. Really for me a deus ex machina. Again, the device is set up in advance, but it’s still within the world of the narrative an extraordinary piece of good fortune. Then, once all is resolved, Jim encounters a clue to wider implications again through a totally random encounter. The end part of the novel contains no fewer than two massive coincidences and one extraordinary stroke of luck to reach its conclusion, and for me that was just too much.
In some ways one might argue that my expectations were wrong, that this isn’t a crime novel at all (as it is marketed) but rather is a pulp novel, a potboiler in which extraordinary coincidence and thrilling escapes are all par for the course. The novel does work better on that analysis, but I don’t think the rest of the novel quite takes that approach being far more a work of formulaic historical crime. As such, the elements didn’t gel for me and I left the novel with a feeling of dissatisfaction.
Perhaps ironically, on finishing I found myself wishing Andrew Martin had written a novel about a young railwayman making his way up the ladder in turn of the Century London, and left out murders and shocking crimes entirely. I suspect it might have been a more interesting novel for that, though equally it would not have sold as well.
In terms of Victorian crime (I appreciate Necropolis is actually Edwardian crime, but there are many similarities, I’ll go into the differences below), I found that I preferred the work of Lee Jackson with his wonderful website http://www.victorianlondon.org/. Jackson also has a series now, with a recurring detective, and I’m not persuaded his work has improved for that (but the market seems to demand it) but I thought his plots less predictable and his characters more interesting. Moving further afield, I also found myself thinking about the novels of Charles Palliser and particularly his extraordinary novel The Quincunx in which he plays with the structure of the novel itself as a tool to reflect the events within the text. Palliser though is I think probably the best contemporary writer for the evocation of the Victorian world, and so is perhaps a harsh point of comparison.
Bizarrely Martin is not the only writer within the steam train related historical crime microgenre. Edward Marston, an author I haven’t read, also now has a series set this time in the 1850s again about steam train related crime. Clearly there is a market for these books, but given my lack of interest in the subject matter and the slightly formulaic feel to it all I don’t think I’m it.
All that said, if someone reads this blog entry who does have an interest in the period, who is happy to approach this not so much as a crime novel but as a fun potboiler with chance escapes and so on and who feels like a light excursion into the Edwardian world then they could do a lot worse. Martin evokes the period well, he uses slang in a way that is comprehensible but credible, he does spend a fair bit of time addressing the growing power of electricity and its implied threat to the steam age (in this sense the atmosphere is not at all Victorian) as well as of the rise of a newly self organising labour class, and these elements add interest. A fan of the period will find much to enjoy, and plainly many have, but while I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of reading more at some stage in the future at the present moment I have no particular plans to do so.
That said, in the unlikely event Martin wrote a novel set in this world but free of the strictures of adhering to the historical crime subgenre template, then I might well change my mind and would give that a fresh chance. I suspect, however, writing any such novel would result in Martin being deluged with letters from disapponted Jim Stringer fans and accordingly it’s probably for the best if he does no such thing.