Set in 1905, Martin's second Jim Stringer mystery (after 2004's The Necropolis Railway) starts slowly but builds a head of steam like the monster locomotive Jim stokes for "Lanky," the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. A passenger dies when a huge grindstone on the tracks derails a train carrying the owner of Hind's Mill on an excursion to seaside Blackpool. Jim begins to suspect class warfare when a young socialist distributes tracts in Jim's hometown of Halifax, urging workers to shun holidays organized by mill owners. A fallen tree on another rail line further suggests conspiracy, as does the disappearance of smartly dressed Clive, the engine driver on Jim's next run. Lanky management's paltry £5 reward hardly seems likely to garner much information, so newlywed Jim turns to comely Lydia, a mill clerk he simply calls "the wife," for much needed help. Getting used to Jim's chatty Cockney narration takes time, but as the suspense rises, readers will be captivated. (July)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
The Blackpool Highflyer: A Jim Stringer Mysteryby Andrew Martin
It is the summer of 1905 and Jim Stringer is copiloting a special train filled with overheated excursionists headed to Blackpool, the seaside resort on the English coast. At the moment when the train picks up speed, a huge rock comes into view farther down the tracks; it lies directly in their path. Full stop of the engine; full steam ahead with the mystery.… See more details below
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It is the summer of 1905 and Jim Stringer is copiloting a special train filled with overheated excursionists headed to Blackpool, the seaside resort on the English coast. At the moment when the train picks up speed, a huge rock comes into view farther down the tracks; it lies directly in their path. Full stop of the engine; full steam ahead with the mystery.
As he did in The Necropolis Railway, Stringer doffs his railway hat and dons his detective’s derby, assisted once more by "the wife" and her brilliant detecting skills. Capturing the world of railway stations and locomotives during the Edwardian Age, The Blackpool Highflyer carries readers to a place where dark shadows lurk behind innocence and the solution to the mystery waits at the end of the line.
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The vacuum was created, and we were ready for the road. As we waited at Halifax Joint station for the starter signal, I sat down on the sandbox and carried on reading yesterday’s Evening Courier, which a cleaner had left on the footplate of our engine. ‘There are cheering reports of the weather from the numerous seaside resorts, and indications that the Whitsuntide holidays will be spent under the most pleasant conditions. Yesterday was fine everywhere and in every way . . .’
That would have been it, or something like, for the glass had been rising steadily since the start of March. ‘Enjoyable sports at Thrum Hall,’ I read. ‘Everybody was in a happy mood at Halifax Cricket Ground this morning . . .’
I folded the paper and stood up. My driver, Clive Carter, was standing on the platform below. Further below than usual, for the engine that had been waiting for us at the shed that morning was, by some miracle or mistake, one of Mr Aspinall’s famous Highflyers, number 1418. These were the very latest of the monsters, and I hadn’t reckoned on having one under me for another ten years at least.
‘Now don’t break it,’ John Ellerton, shed super, had said to Clive and me that morning as he’d walked us over to it at six, with the sweat already fairly streaming off us.
Atlantic class, the Highflyers were: 58 3/4 tons, high boiler, high wheel rims on account of 7-foot driving wheels, and high everything, including speed. It was said they’d topped a hundred many a time, though never yet on a recorded run. They were painted black, like any Lanky engine, so it was a hard job to make them shine, but you never saw one not gleaming. The Lanky cleaners got half a crown for three tank engines, but it was three bob for an Atlantic, and that morning Clive had given the lad an extra sixpence a hexagon pattern on the buffer plates.
The sun was trying to force its way through the glass roof of the platform, making a greenhouse of the place. Next to Clive was a blackboard on which the stationmaster himself, Mr Knowles, had written. ‘special train’, it said, then came heaps of fancy underlinings, followed by ‘sunday 11th june, hind’s mill whit excursion to blackpool’.
After writing it, Knowles had turned on his heel and walked off. He might have given me a nod; I couldn’t say. I’d nodded back of course, just in case. I’d heard that Knowles had started at the Joint by redrawing all the red lines in all the booking-on ledgers so as to shorten the leeway for lateness, and there he was: marked down for ever as hard-natured. But I thought he was all right. He knew his job. If he wanted a word with the guard of a pick-up goods, he’d be waiting on the platform exactly where the van came to rest. If the brass bell wanted shining he knew it, and just where the nearest shammy was kept. Clive called up, so I leant out the side and looked along the platform. The clock said just gone five after, and we were due off at nineteenpast. We had eight flat-roofed rattlers on, one with luggage van and guard’s compartment built in. Most of the excursionists were up by now, but a couple of pretty stragglers were coming along carrying between them a tin bathtub piled with blankets and food. ‘You never do know when a tin of black treacle isn’t going to come in,’ said Clive, and there was one, rolling about on top of the bathtub goods. Clive always had an eye out for the damsels. In society you might have said he was a rare one for the fair sex. At Sowerby Bridge Shed, though, which was the shed for the Joint, they called him ‘cunt struck’, and I believe he was the only engine man there not married. He lived by himself in a village I didn’t know the name of, and came into the shed every morning on his bike.
‘Going on all right, ladies?’ he called out, and he began smoothing back his hair. Never wore a cap, Clive; liked to give his locks an airing. I knew that he used Bancroft’s Hair Restorer, but whether it was to stop going grey or bald I couldn’t have said. Even though he was only thirty-five – which made him fourteen years older than me – both were happening to Clive, but in such a way that a fellow looking at him would almost wish to be a little on the grey and bald side himself.
Today he had on a blue suit that was different from the common run of suiting for some reason I hadn’t been able to put a finger on, until he’d explained by saying, ‘Poacher’s pockets’, which was no explanation at all, really. Clive wore a white shirt to drive in, where most settled for grey, and leather gloves, which were very nearly kid gloves, and also out of the common. He was a handsome fellow, I supposed, but it was more a question of dash – that and the natty togs.
‘Care for a turn on the engine?’ he called to the doxies, and pointed up at the footplate. They laughed but voted not to, climbing up with their bathtub into one of the rattlers instead. They both had very fetching hats, with one flower apiece, but the prettiness of their faces made you think it was more. For some reason they both wore white rosettes pinned to their dresses.
I looked again at the clock: eight-eleven.
I ducked back inside and reached across to the locker for my tea bottle . . . but I was vexed by the tin tub. They would be tied together all day carrying it. And what was it for? I took a go on the tea bottle, then threw open the fire doors and looked at the rolling white madness. Nothing wanted doing there. The Highflyers had Belpaire boxes – practically fired themselves.
I fell to wondering about the man who’d built these beasts. The Railway Magazine would always tell you that Aspinall had ‘studied at Crewe under Ramsbottom’, but would never say who Ramsbottom was, and I imagined him as being left behind, sulking like a camel at Crewe while Aspinall rose to his present heights as Professor of Railway Engineering at Liverpool University, and General Manager of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway.
I wondered if he ever called it ‘the Lanky’, as we all did.
I stoppered the tea bottle, put it back in the locker. I wanted to be away: to have the benefit of the Flyer in motion – they were said to have a special sort of roll to them – because otherwise I’d be nodding off, with the early start I’d had and the heat from the sun already strong.
Down below on platform three our guard, Reuben Booth – who was generally given to us on the Blackpool runs – was saying to Clive: ‘Five hundred and twelve souls, two hundred and twenty tons’. Old Reuben would always give you the number of passengers if he could, besides the tonnage of your train, and with five hundred and twelve up, we were about chock full.
Beyond him, over on platform one, I saw two men talking, and it was like a little play. One was Martin Lowther, the ticket inspector and a right misery. If anyone didn’t have a ticket, he took it personal, like. He was looking at his watch, and the porter who was next to him across the way was looking at his. It was a Leeds train that was due in there, I reckoned, and Lowther was ardent to be on it. But as he glanced across to our excursion train, the situation cracked, and he broke off from giving slavver to the porter, and headed towards the footbridge, leather pouch swinging behind him. Next thing, he was coming down the steps onto our platform.
‘Eh up,’ said Reuben, for he’d spotted Lowther by now, and so had Clive. He was looking along the platform at him as he came along, saying, ‘I sometimes think that bastard’s going to ask me for my ticket.’ Lowther – who was now peering up through the windows of the carriages – lived at Hebden Bridge, and would from time to time be sent down from Distant Control at Low Moor. He had more gold on his coat and hat than Napoleon. Otherwise, he just looked like a murderer, with his black eyes and his big black beard. It would have been a courtesy for him to come up to us and say he would be riding on our train; instead he was climbing up into one of the middle rattlers, roaring – and he would roar it out – ‘All tickets must be shown!’
Of course, he had to crack on while the train was at a stand, for the rattlers had no corridors. We were to go to Blackpool express – without a booked stop, that is – but Lowther would be up and down whenever the signals checked us, clambering into compartments and asking for the tickets with his Scotland Yard air and a face like yesterday.
© Andrew Martin, 2004
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Meet the Author
ANDREW MARTIN was a Spectator (London) Young Writer of the Year and has written for the Guardian , the Daily Telegraph , and Granta . He has a weekly column in the New Statesman . He lives in London.
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