The only frustration I feel towards the Adventures on Trains series by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman is that I didn’t discover it sooner. Because, see, then I’d be four books deep into this wonderful, charming, clever series — with a fifth on the way soon — rather than the mere two I am.
Per my typical modus operandi, the series came to my attention via an impossible crime — the locked room shooting of the third title, Murder on the Safari Star (2021) — and now I’m returning to the beginning to see where it all began. And this first book begins pretty much as you’d expect: 11 year-old Harrison ‘Hal’ Beck being less than thrilled at the prospect of a four-day train trip around England, Scotland, and Wales with the travel writer uncle he barely knows while his mum goes into hospital to give birth.
“It’s about time I got to know my nephew better.” He offered Hal his hand, “You’ve grown since Christmas, Harrison. Are you excited about our steam-powered adventure?”
Hal shook his uncle’s hand and nodded, but he wasn’t going to say yes, because that would be a lie. A journey all the way to Scotland and back on the slowest train in the world with his weird uncle was not what he called an adventure.
Uncle Nat — magnificently, his surname is Bradshaw, how did I miss that before? — is not merely a travel writer, but a train enthusiast, and has been invited aboard the final journey of the Highland Falcon with a select group of guests including a brash TV personality, a photographer, and a movie star. The train will head to Scotland where a young prince and his bride will join the company before heading back down through Wales and then finally to Paddington station, after which the historic train will be retired and placed in a museum. As the title, and early mentions of a jewel thief, suggests, however, things won’t exactly be smooth, er, sailing: before the royalty join the train, there are two instances of valuable jewellery going missing, and the princess is due to be wearing one of the most Fabulously Valuable Diamonds in the WorldTM and, well, you can probably anticipate where this is going.
With the adults either blithely complacent (“Only a lunatic would steal from such a secure place. Trust me, there are no thieves on this train.”) or keen to see something suspicious in Hal’s own proximity to the scenes of both thefts, it’s left to Hal and stowaway Marlene ‘Lenny’ Singh to pay close attention to all that goes on and hope that the clues are in there somewhere.
I think what I enjoy so much about these books is the effortless balancing of character and plot — too much of either can have a soporific effect, and not enough can leave you frustrated at an absence of detail or stakes. The character interactions simply lovely — the first meeting of Hal and Lenny is a pitch-perfect mix of awkward blundering, genuine apology, and the sort of quick-fire bonding that children are so very good at, reinforced with a series of delightfully genuine encounters from that point on…
“I’ve got three younger sisters. One time, when Nutan was born, I had to spend a whole afternoon with our next-door neighbour Mr. Tyrell. He’s a bit strange. Doesn’t go out during the day. Goes out at night to collect dead stuff for his taxidermy. But it turned out OK because he taught me how to skin a squirrel.”
..,and their friendship, established quickly and believably, takes place against the background of adults who are too distant from either of them to really notice them until a convenient outsider is needed to blame. On the other side of this are the adults who do see the value in these youngsters, with Lenny showing Hal a side of the Highland Falcon that he can finally get invested in, and even Uncle Nat evolving from a fuddy-duddy who doesn’t have a digital phone because “I don’t want to stare at a screen. I want to look at the landscape. I want to see the world” to, in a moment of quite brilliant acuity, an unexpected ally and, from that point on, friend (his reaction to being told he’s on Hal’s list of possible suspects is a real highlight).
And the mystery is very strong, with a superb diversity of clues — in dialogue, in action, in background details, in behaviour. One of the dialogue clues, pointed out in chapter 17, is so good that it could be kept for any ‘grown up’ mystery you’d care to name…and you’d be absolutely delighted if Poirot were to let it sail past and mention it only as the suspects goggled at his gasconade during the dénouement. The confines of the train mean that Hal and Lenny are able to keep abreast of the inevitable police investigation, and when the time comes to gather the menagerie and reveal the culprit it’s as classically-handled and hugely enjoyable as you could hope for.
I can find flaws with the occasional ungrammatical sentence (“With five leads in one hand and a lady’s purse in the other, Hal watched Rowan drag the dogs away down the drive…”), some Unfortunate Americanisms (a “leash” is what a dog is attached to Over There, hein?), and people hissing sentences that contain not a single sibilant (“What are you doing in here?” and “You idiot.”) but, meh, who really cares? When the mystery is this well-developed, the characters this easy to engage with, the sense of genuine wonder this brilliantly evoked (the footplate of a stream train is not, let’s face it, likely to get many people excited, but goddamn it seems so thrilling when seen through these eyes), the peril this fingernail-threatening, and the whole enterprise this obvious a labour born out of love for its setting and idiom both, why pick holes?
Additionally, the illustrations throughout by Elisa Paganelli are delightful and informative in a way that too few complex narratives get right. It’s not so much that you’re reliant on the diagrams for clues — though a couple of minor points are established by the illustrations scattered through the pages — as for the feeling of the people and this unfamiliar setting. There’s also a very enlightening section late on where Hal describes his way of thinking about constructing people from shapes and impressions in the lightning-fast sketching he is doing throughout, and the accompanying illustrations are perfectly rendered and placed alongside. It’s a shame that the one purely visual clue isn’t stronger, but, as I say, the rest of what’s here is so damn good that I’m not going to gripe about the occasional missed opportunity.
There is surely no better mystery series currently being written for younger readers — I’m only two books in, and completely in love with what Leonard and Sedgman have created, fulfilling the expectations of classic-era crime fiction with clever plotting, strong clues, and highly engaging plots that use their setting intelligently in a way that too little mystery fiction for grown-ups does these days. I know that this 40 year-old man reading books for 10 year-olds is not something that excites a fair proportion of the readers of this blog, but anyone with a genuine interest in the sort of stories the Golden Age produced in abundance is honestly missing out by scorning the brilliant work done here.
The Adventures on Trains series by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman