In a time before forensics and fingerprints, a night train snakes its way through a far Eastern land. As it makes an unscheduled stop, murder occurs in a first class carriage. Conveniently, a detective also happens to be travelling in the same carriage. Readers may be forgiven for imagining themselves in an Agatha Christie novel but, despite the similarities, this describes not the opening to Murder on the Orient Express, but rather the beginning of Andrew Martin’s Night Train to Jamalpur, the ninth novel in his Jim Stringer series.
Although echoes of Christie are strong, Martin’s book merely nods at the detective tradition she helped to establish. There is no gathered group of suspects here, and no house, carriage or village within which the story is contained while Stringer uses his powers of deduction to slowly eliminate suspects one by one. This is a detective story which spans the North-East of India, from Calcutta, to Jamalpur and Darjeeling, and weaves many threads as it works towards its conclusion. Stringer must not only discover who shot John Young, but also identify who is placing deadly snakes in the first class carriages of the East Indian Railway, as well as deciphering what his daughter’s intentions are towards the RK (a maharajah’s son who also has a connection to Stringer’s partner), all while undertaking his own investigation into corruption within the railway itself. These different strands serve to give the story more of a realistic feel than the traditional ‘Cluedo’ style of murder mystery novel.
Despite this depth, Night Train to Jamalpur cannot entirely escape the clichés of the murder mystery genre. Stringer regularly looks at just the right spot, or appears at just the right time, in order to find the next piece of the puzzle. While necessary in a detective story, especially one set nearly a hundred years in the past, these convenient moments are perhaps more glaringly unlikely to the CSI generation. The suggestion that Stringer had regularly looked at one door plaque in the teeming masses of Calcutta which shows the exact name that he now needs to find seems to stretch the bounds of coincidence too far. In the end, Martin’s novel is a mash up of realistic and unrealistic elements and it is up to the reader to decide how well these two mix.
The prose itself is a reflection of the story’s protagonist. Stringer is an ex-army policeman, a straightforward and practical man, and the events unfold in a straightforward and practical way. The odd flashes of literary description or dry humour shine out in contrast and show us that Martin has taken a deliberate decision to make the text rather stark. Stringer quips “it appears he was too busy administering to India to go there”, then proceeds to set down the facts of John Young’s murder in a numbered format.
The only real quibble to be had with Martin’s style of narration is that he often tells rather than shows particularly in the early chapters, taking paragraphs to explain the workings of railway departments or racial politics. While this obviously adds to the historical accuracy of the novel, it detracts from the flow of the text and occasionally makes the story seem clunky and unwieldy . In addition, the plot itself struggles to flow. As readers, we are often trailing behind Stringer as he reaches conclusions. A good detective story should reveal itself to the reader, so that when the critical piece of evidence is discovered we immediately know its significance. Here, clues are often baffling until explained by Stringer himself and the conclusion, rather than being the great twist it should be, is executed in a confusing manner which necessitates further explanation.
Ultimately, Night Train to Jamalpur is a fairly solid murder mystery novel whose strength lies in its detail and historical setting. Fans of the genre may easily overlook its flaws.