Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn

I've grown immensely fond of Carola Dunn's Daisy Dalrymple series: they are frothy and light and fun, excellent to read when you want to be with someone you like. Daisy is a thoroughly nice young woman, intent on earning her own living at a time when it was still rather frowned-upon for well-brought up girls to do so. Carola Dunn was born in England but lives in the US, and it's a pity that not all of this long series is available here yet. They're worth reading in order as far as possible, starting with Death at Wentwater Court, the first of Daisy's country-house forays both as journalist and amateur investigator, which introduces the regular characters, including Daisy's reluctant collaborator Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard.

Murder on the Flying Scotsman makes a brave attempt at a sense of place, though I got more of that from the last in the series that I read (actually later in chronological order, I think), Dead in the Water, set during Henley Regatta. The Flying Scotsman, as is well-known, travels between London and Scotland (the name applied to the service, but there was also a locomotive of that name), running, in part, up the East Coast of England, with some spectacular views. I've travelled the route regularly since I was five, so I could easily imagine Alec's young daughter Belinda's trips up and down the train, along narrow corridors and through those terrifying intersections between carriages that heaved and rattled and shook their concertina walls like some hideous sphincter intent on engulfing small girls. Dinner on the train always seemed like the height of gracious dining, all crisp white linen and sparkling silverware and, in those far-off days, train crew who always seemed to have a kind word for young travellers, as Belinda's avuncular ticket-inspector does (although he unwittingly frightens her). I feel that Dunn catches the train's atmosphere perfectly - perhaps she was another regular on such journeys, another relic of a time when it was quite usual to walk along when you reached your destination to thank the driver, who was usually delighted to have his locomotive admired.

Not quite as satisfactory, in my view, is the novel's second half, set in my local town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. The descriptions are admittedly accurate enough, and I loved the way the author had evidently woven genuine local newspaper reports of the 1920s into the story, but it lacks the immediacy of the train section. There's a bit too much of the gazetteer about it: ruined castle, Elizabethan walls, King's Bastion and bridge across the street all ticked off, along with Berwick cockles - but of course I smiled at the coldness and surliness of the Berwick Walls Hotel. It must certainly be admitted that Berwick's not the warmest place to live!

The murder story itself is entertaining, a tangle of would-be heirs all vying for the favour of cantankerous old uncles, with lots of bickering and snarling, and the necessary nice young family members for you to warm to, and hope it's not them who are responsible. The central pairing of Daisy and Alec is strong, and they are well-supported by policemen Tom Tring (mature and comfortable, with the wisdom of a long career in the force) and Ernie Piper (all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with nice sharp pencils); I have no doubt, too, that Belinda will feature again in later books. It's becoming evident, too, that the English countryside will provide a broad canvas for Daisy's perambulations, and that there are plenty of quirky places still to draw on: in the next - as could be seen in one of those irritating extracts in the back of the edition I was reading - Daisy will visit Great Malvern, a watering place on the Welsh border. It makes a refreshing change from the frequent focus on one small area (Midsomer, Oxford, etc.). It's all jolly good stuff.

As a postscript, the National Railway Museum in York is currently working on the restoration of the 88-year-old Flying Scotsman 4472, the first locomotive to have been clocked at 100 miles per hour - they have an appeal to raise money for the restoration (they've raised £210,000 of the necessary £250,000). There's lots of information and you can even download a simulator so that you can drive the train on your PC! The Flying Scotsman ran on the London-Edinburgh route until 1963, and I like to think that Daisy and I may have travelled on the same train. The locomotive will pull rail tours again when she is fully restored, so I'll be keeping an eye out for her when I go through York station.


  1. I'm just reading the Daisy book before this one with a view to reading this one for the What's in a Name challenge (a book with travel in the title). I have to say I absolutely adore this charming series.

  2. I have got to read this series!!!! I had the first one out of the library, but had to take it back before it was finished. I think I'll just give in and buy hard to do (not!)! I have heard of the Flying Scotsman, and been on that same train route a few times - many from London to York, and once up to Edinburgh and back. It was beautiful scenery. So I think I'd enjoy this particular story very much too.

    Can you believe that I never made it to the National Railway Museum in York while I lived there? I got to almost every other museum there that year. I think I need to come over for a visit soon :-) and see YOrk again!

  3. I've read the first in the series and have the next 7 (I got a bargain!) on my shelf. I love that period in history and it's such a nice, comforting read:) I also recommend David Roberts' Lord Edward Corinth and Verity Browne mysteries too.

  4. Cath, glad you like them too, they are so delicious.

    Susan, I'm shocked ;) - terrible the way one never does the cultural activities in the place you're living. We took our boys to the museum when they were young, but I rather like trains myself, and I'd like to go again because they've got a bullet train. That would be fun to see. Yes. you should visit again!

    Sakura, I was going to go for that bargain too, even though I already had the first three! but then someone gave me another and I couldn't quite justify it :( so I'll have to plead at the library, I guess. I'll try the others that you recommend, I don't know them.

  5. I might have travelled down from Edinburgh to York or London on a train pulled by The Flying Scotsman, but it's just to far away to be in my memory bank.

    The York Railway Mueseum is one of the best museums (of any sort) in the UK!!

  6. Not an author I know anything about. I'm off to investigate straight away.

  7. These are delicious books I too adore young Daisy - a true delight remeeting characters and watching relationships grow over the series.
    Another delightful series is Kerry Greenwood's Phyrne Fisher - 1920's Melbourne Australia.