A few years ago, I got the Night Riviera sleeper train from London Paddington to Penzance. When we reached our destination, after a good night’s sleep, I was disappointed to discover that no-one had been bafflingly murdered while en route and that my skills as an amateur detective were not required.
Well, 12 year-old Harrison ‘Hal’ Beck leads a very different life to me. Murder on the Safar Star (2021) is the third novel in the Adventures on Trains series by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, and it seems that every time Hal gets on a train some mysterious crime occurs: he’s already solved a kidnapping and a jewel theft, but this time things escalate. Travelling from South Africa to Zimbabwe on the Safari Star service, unlikeable American media magnate Mervyn Crobsy is shot in his locked room, and Hal decides his skills may come in handy when reitred Inspector Erik Lovejoy is pressed into service by Crosby’s wife Amelia.
There is a lot to recommend about this book, and I had a wonderful time with it. Hitting all the expected classic detection tropes — boorish victim-to-be, cast of future suspects who have a range of grudges to hold against him, constrained location (Ithankyou), amateur sleuth whose interfering isn’t entirely appreciated — and stirring in a healthy dose of Younger Readers fiction (the wonder of nature, making new friends, learning who can and who cannot be trusted), it has a foot firmly on either side of the line and emerges as a perfectly balanced tale that gives every element room to breathe.
I must also mention here the superb art by Elisa Paganelli that features throughout and displays both wonderful vistas:
…and matters of pure mechanics or routine, like the who-was-where-when diagrams as alibis are established, or the nifty visual demonstration of how a door can be locked from the ‘wrong’ side. As with Leonard and Sedgman’s writing, the art walks that line between keeping it interesting and reinforcing the requirements of the detection classics that have come before. I’ve read quite a few illustrated books for youngers readers in this genre, but never one that’s so smart about how, when, and what to illustrate.
The twelve ostensible main characters are clearly drawn and easy to keep straight in your head, and special mention must go to Ariadne Oliver-alike crime writer Beryl Brash: a little bit dotty, absolutely thrilled to see a real life murder play out in front of her on what is supposed to be merely a research trip, and making romantic overtures towards another of the guests, Beryl is a delight from her first appearance wearing a sensible English tweed suit in the South African heat (“I’ll have you know that I’ve written some of my best work powered by cake!”). The others are functional, and there to have the finger of suspicion pointed at them, but they’re a sympathetic lot and used well to reinforce the general caddery and unpleasantness of the victim (one must be careful, having picked the victim, not to resort to simple ad hominem attacks, y’know?).
Pleasingly, too, and something I especially enjoy in these books for younger readers, the kids here actually act like kids: Hal and local boy Winston strike up a sort of tentative easy friendship that feels very organic, being able to share in simple activites like building a run for Chipo the mongoose out of tubes, socks, and nappies (that sentence sounds odd in isolation, I realise), and including Mervyn’s teenage daughter Nicole in their activites as her father’s attitude begins to grate on people more and more. The investigation and the seriousness of murder requires certain ‘grown up’ behaviour on the part of these children, of course, but I like that they are still true to their ages rather than turned into stoic, unrufflable ciphers divested of diffidence for the sake of pure convenience.
Murder is, though, a step up from kidnapping and jewel theft, and again the setting is used well in that regard: on a safari, one hopes to encounter animals in their natural habitat and so a certain amount of seeing them as animals is very helpful in establishing the presence of threat and violence. Snakes are put to good use, as are a pride of lions:
A dead buffalo was splayed in an awkward position on the ground, looking like a wrecked ship with its hull torn away. Four lionesses were sitting around it, calmly and slowly ripping meat from the carcass, their mouths smeared red and pink. Hal stared, rigid with shock. The buffalo was empty of life, but the lionesses were electrifyingly vivid.
When murder intrudes, then — in a locked compartment, the window open but inaccessible — it is shocking without being too sudden a change of pace. Good work is done in establishing the necessaries for murder, and in providing some small amount of puzzling behaviour: it would have been impossible for the victim to shoot himself with his own gun (“…the barrel is too long for him to have turned it on himself. He wouldn’t have been able to reach the trigger.”), someone was heard moving around in the compartment, five pink shirts vanish from the victim’s wardrobe…all the classics, and it’s load of fun. I’m not entirely sure if the breaking of one established alibi is ever really explained (one of them, it’s no spoiler to reveal, must be false because the killer was obviously unobserved at the time of the murder…), but that’s about the only gripe I have. Oh, and one clue — the m_ _ _ _ b_ _ _ _ — is perhaps unfairly obfuscated since I believe we’re never given the chance to know who it belongs to…but this is me, a 40 year-old man two decades deep in the best of the genre, griping here.
Because, see, two elements of this are especially excellent: the fallibility of Hal, who gets it very wrong very publically and must face up to the consequences, and the workings of the murder itself which is honestly one of the most delightful reveals I’ve encountered in a long time. The best fictional murders make you feel a complete imbecile for overlooking the obvious, quashing any growing arrogance that you feel for solving the last five books you read, and Leonard and Sedgman certainly did that to me here. How impossible the impossible crime is I shall leave to the individual (I’m willing to allow it on enthusiasm alone), but if you’re not delighted by the manner in which it is achieved then you have a hard heart indeed.
I had a great time with this book. The sights, sounds, and wonders of nature are conjured up passionately and evocatively, I learned something new (giraffe’s tongues are so long, they can use them to clean their ears…!), the setting is utilised very smartly, the characters are fun, and the murder is sheer delight. If there’s a murder-obsessed child in your life, well, maybe keep them away from sharp implements, but also this would be a perfect distraction and scratch more than a few itches. And it’ll work for the adult classic mystery nerd in you, too. Highly, highly recommended; a great time will be had by all.