As I'm sure you know, I'm a big fan of the British Library Crime Classics series. I've always loved vintage crime, so it might have been created just for me. I've reviewed a number of them on here and on Shiny New Books, where there's be some more reviews appearing in the next issue early next month.
I'd never heard of Miles Burton, whose real name was Cecil Street. Born in 1884, he wrote no less than 140 detective novels, also sometimes using the pseudonym John Rhode. This one was published in 1936, and is an variation on that popular feature, the locked room mystery. The variation here is that the murder takes place in a locked railway carriage, on a moving train which is halfway through a long tunnel. Sir Wilfred Saxonby was travelling in a locked first-class carriage in a first-class compartment which was locked at either end. Initially it is assumed that he committed suicide, as a gun with his initials on it is found in the compartment. But several things give cause to doubt this - for a start, there's no apparent reason for him to wish to do this, but more telling is the strange incident that occurred while the train was in the tunnel. A red light had appeared in front of the driver, causing him to slow the train down considerably. Presumably this would have enabled the murderer to climb and board and do the deed -- but where did he or she go afterwards? and why would anyone want to kill Sir Wilfred anyway?
The case proves to be one of the most devilish ingenuity. Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard, called in to investigate, immediately feels he is not really up to solving it -- he's 'nothing if not methodical', but feels out of his depth here -- and consults his friend Desmond Merrion, an amateur criminologist whose strongest point is his imagination, something Arnold singularly lacks. The case is clearly not just a whodunnit but a whydunnit and above all a howdunnit. In fact the problem of the red light is solved relatively early on in the proceedings, but there are so many other knotty problems still to face including forged cheques, stolen breakdown lorries, substituted wallets, fake identities and much more besides. The solution contains a clever twist which I certainly didn't see coming.
As always with these vintage crime reprints, there are great moments of historical nostalgia. I particularly liked it when the two detectives, agonising over how to break a suspect's cast iron alibi, puzzle over how he could have got from Manchester to London in time to commit the murder. It's only when they spot a poster advertising a newly formed airline that they realise that of course he could have flown, as they themselves proceed to do. They land at Croydon airport and take advantage of the motor transport waiting to take passengers into central London, and are touchingly excited to be doing so.
As with all the novels in this series this has a useful introduction by Martin Edwards and a short bibliography. Apparently first editions of Miles Burton's novels are very rare and can sell for thousands. So look out for one in the charity shops and make your fortune. Meanwhile, why not spend some happy hours reading this one.