#781: Minor Felonies – Murder on the Safari Star (2021) by M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman [ill. Elisa Paganelli]

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:

*Wistful sigh*

…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.

Seriously, just look at the details here…

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.

10 thoughts on “#781: Minor Felonies – Murder on the Safari Star (2021) by M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman [ill. Elisa Paganelli]

  1. This looks really interesting and entertaining. My own kid is still a few years away from murder stories (our mysteries are much more ‘oh, who took this thing’ right now) but I am making a careful note of this one for the future!

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        • Sounds like Aidan is taking his parental duties seriously. You dad-check those books without excuses before handing them to your kid. šŸ™‚

          It seems like you found another good one, something along the lines of Nicholas Wilde’s Death Knell, which has been added to my wishlist. It’s interesting to see how the Grim Reaper exited and reentered the juvenile detective story over the decades. Death was not wholly uncommon in pre-WWII juvenile mysteries (e.g. Hugh Lloyd’s 1932 The Clue at Skeleton Rocks), but became more sanitized and kid friendly over the next three, four decades. Something that slowly began to change during the 1970s and ’80s (e.g. M.V. Carey’s The Mystery of Death Trap Mine until we got Nicholas Wilde’s Death Knell and Michael Dahl’s The Worm Tunnel in the nineties. A nearly 100-year journey for the juvenile detective story to become full-blown, GAD-style detective stories that the whole family can enjoy.

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  2. Just wanted to thank you for bringing this book to my attention. Not only was it one of the most fun I read in recent times, the crime element/mystery was very good as well with several subtle clues both to the who and the how. Do you know if the other books in the series also contain mystery elements or are they straight forward adventure stories?

    “Iā€™m not entirely sure if the breaking of one established alibi is ever really explained”

    It is: Gur xvyyre jnf abg jvgu gur bgure crefba, jura gur zheqre unccrarq. Gurl whfg cnffrq rnpu bgure va gur pbeevqbe rvgure fubegyl orsber be nsgre, V’z abg fher nalzber. Gur erny nyvov jnf, gung gur xvyyre jnf ba gur bgure raq bs gur genva.

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    • I’m delighted that you enjoyed this so much — the writing really is wonderful, and some of the clues are pretty neat. I’ve read no more of these — I heard of this one because I subscribe to a Waterstones newsletter — but I’ll be keeping an eye out fo them in future and hopefully they’ll be sufficiently detection-heavy to warrant a mention on here.

      As to the alibi, my difficulty is the following:

      V unir n srryvat gung gur xvyyre jnf va n qvssrerag pneevntr gb qb gur fubbgvat jura gurl pynvzrq gb unir gur nyvov bs cnffvat fbzrbar ryfr va gur pbeevqbe. Fheryl gur qvssrerapr va gvzr jbhyq or abgvprq…ohg V’z unccl gb npprcg gung vg jnfa’g, gur jbexvatf bs gur fubbgvat orvat fb rawblnoyr.

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      • Re: The Alibi

        I reread the interview in question and it’s actually pretty subtle and clever writing. Cbegvn Enznobn fnvq, gung jura fur urneq gur fubg, fur jnf va gur xvgpura gnyxvat gb gur pbbx. Fb ng guvf zbzrag fur jnf abg jvgu gur xvyyre. Gurl whfg fnj rnpu bgure va gur pbeevqbef fubegyl orsber be nsgre.

        By the way, I liked this one sat much that I bought the kindle book of the first one “The Highland Falcon Thief”. So far it’s as much fun as the Safari Star and it’s also a whodunnit with an excentric cast. I’m curious if the solution will hold up as well, too.

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        • Ah, fabulous — yes, I completely overlooked that šŸ™‚

          Great to hear that Highland Falcon maintains the same level of entertainment; these sorts of undertakings can sometimes take a few tries to get right, so knowing the earlier books are as enjoyable is very pleasing.

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  3. I’ve ordered the whole trilogy (and I hear it will one day be a quartet). I’m also sending you a bill for the books as well as for the Truly Devious Trilogy AND for the one that is coming in the fall which I have pre-ordered. If you are going to wreak havoc on my budget and add to the teetering qualities of my vast TBR pile, I expect you to chip in financially!!!

    My solicitor/advocate/attorney/counsel/big-mug-named-Jeff will be in touch with you in the morning . . .

    Oh, and can we all lay off the ROT-13 . . . I’m starting to be able to read it. (After-effects of COVID vaccine???)

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    • Yes, it will be a quartett. At the end of book 3 there’s a teaser for book 4. But don’t make the same mistake as I did and read the teaser before you read book 1 or 2. Two of the suspects from book 1 appeared or were mentioned in that teaser, so I knew that they were innocent from the moment they first appeared in the book 1.

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