Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn
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.