This gets a little convoluted: at the recent Bodies from the Library conference, I was discussing impossible crime novels with Dan of The Reader is Warned when conversation turned to Siobhan Dowd’s very, very good impossible disappearance for younger readers The London Eye Mystery (2007). Dan mentioned that, following Dowd’s death in 2007, the series was to be continued (The Guggenheim Mystery is due out in August) by Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series. Then he mentioned that one of the MMU books was a locked room and, well, I was in.
Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: we find ourselves aboard the Orient Express in the mid-1930s — with, among others, a forthright married man and his timid wife, a menacing Italian, an elderly Russian Countess, a businessman and his personal secretary, and a private detective — when one of the passengers in the First Class compartment is bafflingly murdered in a manner that means the killer must be one of the others therein, and an emergency stop means the train is forced to stand and wait while everyone contends with the certain knowledge of a murderer on board…but the detective is forbidden from investigating because her father doesn’t want her involved in such dangerous pursuits. She is, after all, a 14 year old girl.
I am older than I was in April — and much older than I was last November — and I can decide for myself whether or not I want to be in danger, I am quite all right with being afraid for a while, if it means that we catch a murderer.
So opines our narrator Hazel Wong, Secretary and Vice-President of the Wells & Wong Detective Society. I’m assuming that those specific months above refer to the two previous cases in this series, as this is the third book, and they have already solved two murders by now…the second of which appears to have come rather close to home for the Honourable Daisy Wells, President of the Wells & Wong Detective Society. Without (so far as I can tell) spoiling anything specific, there is a distinct air of awkwardness and embarrassment whenever anyone makes reference to Daisy’s aristocratic family, and it’s one of the strengths of this book how completely Stevens works in this thread of young minds trying to come to terms with adult deeds.
A good contrast here is Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels — written, it’s true, for an older audience than is this — and how the precocious Flavia is given free reign to get involved in whatever investigations she pleases, always entering with a degree of naivety but coming out more aware as a result. Stevens’ intended readership is much younger, and those young people will be required to operate under the auspices of their parents. As such, the additional thrill of defying them (though, in fairness, Hazel is made out to love and respect her father very much, and again Stevens deals with the dichotomy of defiance in a light and clever way) is similarly an additional element of the enjoyment to be had here. What if you feel compelled to investigate, but the people you love forbid you from doing so? And what if the actual investigator is a bungler of the first order?
One especially enjoyable element here is the realisation of these girls as, well, girls. There is a soupcon of experienced-hardened weariness, and the validation of acknowledgement of their abilities from a conveniently senior and shadowy personage, but a lot of the time we can be in no doubt that these are young girls still trying to make sense of the world around them:
In Hong Kong I am absolutely neat, but I have discovered that to fit in here I must be careless with my possessions, and leave at least one thing on the floor every day.
Or, upon boarding the Orient Express in London:
“Are you French?” asked Daisy as he led us along the corridor.
“No, mademoiselle, I am from Austria,” said Jocelyn, smiling at her. “The best country in the world.”
“Oh,” said Daisy, frowning to hear England dismissed like that.
This is a theme expanded upon superbly given the historical context, too, with Hazel’s different appearance giving rise to queries from the border police, her father being dismissively referred to as “Fu Manchu” by another passenger, and the treatment of Jews in Europe at the time featuring into the plot via a throwaway comment about Mr. Hitler and his behaviour. Equally, some of the cast of suspects and hangers-on are given moments — Mr. Rafiel-like — to fall very squarely into one archetype (necessarily, there is a certain amount of broad-strokes painting here; a few characters get some great wrinkles and ruffles, but a lot of the adults are deliberately simplified for plot, suspicion, and interaction reasons, though none are denigrated to mere poltroonish patsies) and then give flashes of complexity by placing a foot squarely elsewhere.
The relationship of Hazel with her father is enriched by some flashes of their past lives together, and little moments like the admission that he “does not approve of me thinking about clothes too much — he says it distracts me from important things like history and sums”. And then the Detective Society bond with Daisy — blandly perfect, and easily the less interesting of the two girls despite a brains that “must look like a half-unravelled jumper, everything barely holding together but connected to everything else” — who refers to Hazel as “Watson” throughout and is supposedly considered the brilliant one of the partnership (she’s no savant-like Holmes, it must be said, but she’s not intended to be), is not without its moments of irritation for Hazel but then comes to new light with the sense of what they each bring to the “cases” they pursue: ” We are no better and no worse than each other. We are simply different”.
And so what about the, y’know, murder?
Well, when you have a character reading Murder on the Orient Express, and the book opening with a map of not just who was in which compartment but also who sat where at dinner, it is to be hoped that we are finding ourselves in the realm of the classical GAD homage. And Stevens has done a very good job of writing a classic-era detective novel for a younger audience — sure, the clues, such as they are, are rather thin on the ground, but she’d not be the first writer to spin a solution from very little actual evidence. There’s a nice motif of the girls despairing at the lack of rigour employed by the nominal sleuth in the case, opening the door onto the consideration of how something is ever really proven in these situations, and a nice selection of false clues, red herrings, and the Death on the Nile-esque inclusion of a random spy fill out the pages very nicely indeed.
The locked room murder, then, is also a classically clewed and motivated piece of chicanery. I got the who and the why, but was misled rather neatly on the how — I had a solution from another classic in mind, with the same people employed in a slightly different scheme, but Stevens has taken a different snuff of existing ideas and put them together in a way that if not completely original is certainly clever and bodes well for the quality of the ideas elsewhere in this series. Any younger readers picking this up and hoping to find something as clever elsewhere will have a field day when they stumble upon Mrs. Christie and realise in later life how great a job Stevens has done in copacetic assumption of the ingredients, manner, and style of those classics. I consider that to be about the highest praise that can be bestowed on any author working in this sphere, and I for one will be reading the rest of this series to no doubt witness the clever retro-fitting of other such aspects of the classics.
So, pretending to have read this for TomCat’s benefit, how does it stack up? Well, it’s not the modern classic we all want, but it is a very enjoyable and highly recommended romp with appropriate overtones of The Famous Five, Agatha Christie, The Three Investigators, and the ‘finding your way in the world’ overtones of most of this recent crop of high-quality YA now pouring out of bookshops the world over. Stevens knows whereof she treads, and I would have been delighted with these as a youngster. Well, I’ll simply have to make do with them as an oldster instead.
Oh, and there’s one simile that surely has to be an oblique Murder on the Orient Express reference. I mean, surely…
Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts: