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by Edward Marston
Allison & Busby, July 2007
334 pages
18.99 GBP
ISBN: 0749080809

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

For readers who might be discouraged from trying this book, it is important to state at the outset that both the railway and horseracing worlds are background matter. You will not be overwhelmed or bored by details of gauges, pistons, timetables, bloodstock, feeding regimes or other technical matter: this book always remembers that it is a mystery story whose aim is to tell a good story, at a lively pace, and provide a mystery to be solved. For which many thanks.

Having said which, let us start at the very beginning, which in this case is not merely a very good place to start, but the best. Indeed it has to be said that the book does not really live up to its opening, but given the tendency towards cliché (dark nights, women in jeopardy, blah, blah) in many current mysteries let us give Marston the praise he is due for producing an intriguing beginning.

Reginald Hibbert is an accident-prone porter at Crewe Station; he reports for a work with a damaged left hand as a result of tripping over while carrying a tin bath and consequently drops a trunk, which hits a lady's hatbox, which in turn flies open to reveal a severed head.

It does not take the suave Robert Colbeck, who is known as The Railway Detective and is Marsden's series character, long to discover that the head belongs to a groom who worked at the stables of one of the three leading contenders for the 1854 Derby.

Colbeck is plunged into the horseracing world moving between the disparate worlds of the three contenders – arrogant aristocrat Lord George Hendry, dodgy bookmaker Hamilton Fido and Irish trainer Brian Dowd – all of whom hate the other two. Connected to at least two of them is the courtesan Kitty Lavender, whose half-brother Marcus is an inveterate gambler. Colbeck must not only track down the murderer but also attempt to protect the horses as various attacks are made on them or their jockeys in the lead-up to the race.

The narrative moves along at a good pace, but the characterisation is on the weak side so that the reader is never very fully involved. This is particularly so as Colbeck himself and his side-kick sergeant, Victor Leeming, are rather colourless characters. The character who subverts expectations, and is therefore much the most interesting, is Colbeck's superior Superintendant Edward Tallis.

Tallis is unimaginative, bureaucratic, judgemental and puritanical – the direct opposite of Colbeck. Nothing very new about that but, against expectations, Tallis is also utterly dedicated to the police and the rule of law, and will therefore gives Lord Hendry very short shrift when he comes over with the social superiority act. In nine out of ten cases in mystery fiction a character like Tallis would also be a snob, who would crawl before members of the aristocracy or other social superiors; so plaudits to Marston for defying expectation. The drawback is that Tallis is a rather more fascinating character, certainly one of much greater potential, than the protagonist Colbeck!

THE IRON HORSE is a pleasant enough read for a wet afternoon, and it is to its credit that it never pretends to be more than it is.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, January 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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