‘The sense of being trapped in a box-like compartment….’ – Murder in the First-Class Carriage, by Kate Colquhoun

April 21, 2012 at 9:28 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Crime)

  An empty railway carriage spattered with blood and gore. The body of a badly beaten man lying on a railway embankment. And a mystery….

These are the main elements of a story told with exceptional skill by Kate Colquhoun. The year is 1864. The crime is both violent and perplexing. And one of  its most baffling aspects, both for those who were reading about it and the investigators, is contained in the book’s title. How on earth could such a dastardly deed be done in a First Class Carriage?

Murder in the First-Class Carriage reminded me in many ways of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. As in Kate Summerscale’s fascinating narrative, we learn from  Colquhoun about advances being made in the art and science of police work in mid-Victorian Britain. For instance, in 1842, Police Commissioner Sir Richard Mayne and another highly placed official in the force, Charles Rowan, were tasked with creating a different kind of policeman:

No longer concerned primarily with the prevention of crime and without the visible authority of a uniform, these were the first detectives: eight conscientious men were selected, including Stephen Thornton and Jack Whicher. Encouraged by the adulation of writers like Dickens, Britain had broadly allowed itself to be seduced into a belief in the brilliance of these perspicacious, dogged, plain-clothed detectives.

Colquhoun then appends this cautionary note: “Scepticism…was growing, and admiration was balanced by distrust and delays and irresolution from the elite investigators emphasised their fallibility.” Ironically, it was doubts like these that were responsible for derailing Jack Whicher’s investigation of the murder at Road Hill House. (The suspicions of Mr. Whicher concerning this terrible murder, which occurred in1860, were ultimately proven to be only too well founded.)

Victorians were both fascinated and repelled by the triumphant speed and ruthless efficiency of the railroads:

Woven into the excitement of railway travel, a corresponding nervousness had developed about the loss of individual control. The sense of being trapped in a box-like compartment, whirled along at speed and treated like just one in a stream of disposable, moveable goods was, at best, disorientating and, at worst, threatening.

Colquhoun cites the fears of Dombey, as articulated by his creator Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son:

‘The power that forced itself upon its iron way…defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it…was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.’

Murder in the First-Class Carriage is subtitled, “The First Victorian Railway Killing.” This raised the question in my mind as to how many more such crimes had occurred. Helpful information on this topic is provided by the British Transport Police, in the history section of that organization’s website.  (Really, one can only be grateful to the British for their obsession with the minutiae of their own history. It benefits all of us Anglophiles no end!)

**********************************

Murder in the First-Class Carriage lacks the element of pathos that made The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher such a riveting and affecting read. Still, Kate Colquhoun’s writing, by turns incisive and lyrical, is every bit as good as Kate Summerscale’s. In addition to the telling a riveting story, Murder in the First-Class Carriage is a rich compendium of the mores and folkways that characterized the denizens of mid-Victorian England. I loved it.

Kate Colquhoun, with a copy of Mr. Briggs’ Hat, the British title of Murder in the First-Class Carriage.

5 Comments

  1. Angie Boyter said,

    You mentioned the violent murder. How gruesome and graphic was the description? I am running into a string of historical mysteries set in the 19th-century that I am finding repulsive because of the gore, depravity, and general unpleasantness, e.g., Gods of Gotham and The Solitary House. Is this a major trend?

  2. Pauline Cohen said,

    I read this book about 6 months ago and remember that it was a fairly interesting true-life account of a murder on a train, but it was not as satisfying a read as The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. I don’t remember this current book as having violent details in it, but I do remember not feeling that the ending delivered what I hoped for.
    As someone who spent a number of my earlier years on commuter trains to and from London, I enjoyed reading about the way things used to be–although I was fortunate enough not to encounter any bodies.

  3. Susan said,

    i have this book on order at the library already. Yours is the first review of it I’ve seen, so thank you! I enjoyed Suspicions of Mr Whicher very much – it was my book of the year for 2010 – so I will keep in mind that this one might not be to it’s gripping level.

  4. Yvette said,

    This sounds like something I would enjoy reading. Though generally I’m not a non-fiction crime reader. With non-fiction there’s little guarantee that the good guys will triumph. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy mysteries, most especially the Golden Age ones.

    But I’m fascinated by Victorian England and I love the whole romantic idea of travelling by train. so I’m adding this title to my list. Thanks for a thought-provoking review.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      And thank you, Yvette, for your multiple comments! I really appreciate them. There are times when I feel like the proverbial Voice Crying in the Wilderness – so it’s heartening to hear from folks who occasionally read & enjoy the blog.

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