Edward Marston is a prolific writer of excellent historical mysteries. He is equally at home in the Elizabethan theater or in Restoration London. I was delighted to recently discover a more recent series by Marston set in the rapidly expanding world of the railways in 1850s England. Marston excels at capturing the feel of a place and time as well as at crafting an intriguing mystery. This series shows him at his best.
Marston’s protagonist is Inspector Robert Colbeck of Scotland Yard, soon to be dubbed “The Railway Detective” for his work solving the theft of a large gold shipment as well as letters from the London to Birmingham mail train. While the mystery is interesting, and Marston puts in enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing, it is the interplay between the characters that is most appealing. Colbeck faces resentment from the local police and the railroad security staff who fear a loss of power when Scotland Yard takes over. He also is continually at odds with his rather officious superior officer, who resents Colbeck’s fame. In this first novel in the series, the attack on the mail train brings the daughter of the engineer to Colbeck’s attention, offering an interesting twist to the story, and insights into the role of women in mid-Victorian London.
One of Marston’s great strengths is his ability to bring a past time to life. The early days of the railways were exciting times for many, especially the engineers seeking to control nature as they laid track and created bridges and tunnels. Marston conveys this excitement to the reader just as he conveys the harsh conditions of the navvies who built the railways. Moving easily from high society to the hovels of the railway gangs, Marston’s ear for colloquial speech and eye for detail add to the realism of the story.
As the series goes on, the characters evolve in intriguing, and not always expected, ways, and new characters are introduced to keep things fresh. This is one of the best historical series I have come across recently.
Check the WRL catalog for The Railway Detective
Also available in ebook form