Hamlet in the underworld: The Lost Luggage Porter by Andrew Martin

February 13, 2008 at 11:14 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

lost-luggage.jpg andrewmartin.jpg The Lost Luggage Porter by Andrew Martin is a most unusual work of crime fiction; or at least, it seems so to me. It is 1906, and Jim Stringer has just taken up his position as railway detective in York, in the north of England. Jim had formerly been employed by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, but an accident, for which he was unfairly blamed, caused him to be terminated. Now, he is back, albeit in a different capacity, and he feels out of his depth. He goes nowhere without his copy of the Railway Police Manual, studying it at every opportunity.

When he reports to Chief Inspector Saul Weatherill, he is astonished to find himself ordered to go undercover immediately. Rumors are being bruited about to the effect that a major heist of railway property is being planned. Jim’s assignment: infiltrate the gang of would-be thieves before they can put the plan into action. Being newly arrived in York, and not yet a well known face in the area, he is, the Chief, believes, ideal for the job. The Railway Police Manual has little to offer in the way of advice regarding this extremely dangerous undertaking; Chief Inspector Weatherill offers even less. Jim Stringer is left to fly by the seat of his pants.

He meets up almost at once with the gang in question. Getting in proves to be relatively easy. But getting out? It’s hard to see how – unless you consider sudden death an exit strategy! But Jim cherishes life, as well he should: his wife Lydia, a feisty suffragist, will soon give birth to their first child.

I have high requirements for historical fiction. I want to feel transported to whatever time and place the author seeks to re-create. The dialogue in particular has to convince me. It must be as free as possible of ticks and anachronisms. Andrew Martin must have read many books set in turn-of-the -century Britain; I say this because the dialogue he writes and the slang he employs ring absolutely true. For example, rather than saying, “‘It’s going to rain,” one of the characters observes, “‘It’s coming on to rain.” To my ear, that locution seems right on the mark.

As Jim Stringer gets in deeper with the gang of thugs, he must improvise more and more. He is faced with excruciating moral dilemmas – in order to carry out his impersonation in a convincing manner, he finds himself committing, or at the very least sanctioning, acts he would ordinarily abhor. At every new turn, he is faced with the question: do I turn them in now, or stay with them in order to make sure they get caught? As it turns out, he stays with them far longer than he had ever intended to, because there is always some reason why, at any given moment, he cannot break free. He becomes a veritable Hamlet of the underworld.

The Lost Luggage Porter clocks in at just under 300 pages, but it is not a fast read. There is suspense, but of an attenuated sort. The writing is excellent; the characters are indelibly sketched, especially the Dickensian bad guys. At the heart of this novel is the sometimes clueless but always courageous Jim Stringer, whose love of railways and everything connected to them probably mirrors the author’s own.

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Highly recommended.

[The Lost Luggage Porter is the third Jim Stringer novel by Andrew Martin. It follows The Necropolis Railway and The Blackpool Highflyer.]

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