#878: Minor Felonies – Kidnap on the California Comet (2020) by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman [ill. Elisa Paganelli]

Following my recent podcast chat with M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, and the nomination of this very title for an Edgar award, let’s catch up with the Adventures on Trains series. “It’s unlikely we’ll encounter another adventure quite like the last one,” Nathaniel Bradshaw tells his nephew Harrison ‘Hal’ Beck as they take their seats on the California Comet. But we readers, aware that the title of this book is Kidnap on the California Comet (2020), know better…

Yup, it’s another train and another adventure with Hal and Uncle Nat, and technically I suppose Uncle Nat is right: where their journey on The Highland Falcon saw them hob-nobbing with a curated bunch of high-profile types, this time they’re on a gigantic trans-American passenger train with hundreds of members of the public. Sure, it also has the Silver Scout, personal carriage of billionaire August Reza, attached to the rear, and Nat’s journalist credentials will allow them access to the special events planned therein, but arguably more is going on in coach class…especially when Reza’s young daughter Marianne is kidnapped at an event for the press.

You know this already, but one of the things I love about M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman’s Adventures on Trains series is how the core concept allows for such a wild variation of themes, settings, and plots. The series is now five books deep, with a sixth due in October, and each story brings in a new locale, a new set of suspects with a genuine reason for being in the vicinity of the crime, and a new central problem for Hal to pit his wits against. There’s nothing new in this, but Leonard and Sedgman bring an invigorating air to the concept of a travelling detective that, on account of its locomotive focus, doesn’t need to veer into cheap gimmickry or convoluted explanations to justify the book’s existence. We’re on a train. There’s a mystery of sorts. Hop to it.

It helps that their settings and characters are so neatly observed, helped in no small part by the wonderful illustrations by Elisa Paganelli. An early rendering herein of the Great Hall of Chicago’s Union Station is a wonderful example of how symbiotically the relationship between prose and pictures has grown even in the short time they’d been working together — the vast open space far different from the cozy, compact stations of England and Scotland in their first novel, and sprightly work being done to introduce people who will become important later on. And the fact that these diagrams exist in the world of the book — that Hal is drawing them and will refer back to them later when certain aspects become important — is also very well-handled:

“It’s like my brain takes a photo of something, and then my hand is the printer. I don’t notice details though until I’m drawing them. If I talk before I draw, if you ask me to describe something with words, my memory gets blurred and I’m not certain of what I saw.”

In the style of probably every itinerant juvenile sleuth — the Three Investigators spring to mind — Hal also picks up peers on these journeys to aid, or sometimes hinder, his investigations, and these relationships don’t always work out as you’d expect. After Hal befriends the apparently lonely Marianne and meets up with her in her father’s coach, that encounter reveals an element of her personality that’s unexpected and all the more interesting for our author not hammering on about How Interesting It Is. Equally, the brother and sister pair of Mason and Hadley don’t initially present as entirely sympathetic, and this reminder that you need to know people more than just how they initially present (which, believe me, seems to be overlooked in a lot of stuff for readers in this age group) is as important as it is simply allowed to breathe for the reader to realise for themself.

Add to this plenty of mysteries — a boy recovering from surgery who scrawls HELP on one of Hal’s drawings and then later denies having done so, the prospect of industrial espionage upsetting August Reza’s environmental scheme, the small matter of just how many suspicious types you can spot on a passenger train spending several days crossing so huge a land mass — and an escalation of threat when ransom notes pertaining to Marianne’s snatching are received, and you have more than enough ingredients to make this supposedly inflexible form of framing your story very interesting indeed. There’s also the small matter of Hal’s personal involvement in the kidnapping, preventing this from being purely an intellectual exercise based around clues and obscure reasoning because it has someone he knows and likes at its core, and seeing Hal twist under this adds a dimension to things that again feels fresh because it’s not leaned into too heavily.

And then, of course, there’s Uncle Nat, doing MVP work when consulted, even if he does have to be kept out of things for stretches because, hey, this is a book for younger readers and so the majority of the grunt work should be done by a younger protagonist. When he’s needed, though, he’s realistically the sympathetic ear and driving presence behind a lot of what these kids simply can’t comprehend or manage on their own.

“Do you know what makes the good guys good? They defeat the bad guys by sticking to the rules. And that’s hard. I understand that you want to help Marianne, but don’t resort to criminal activity to do it.”

And it’s lovely to see the growing relationship between Hal and his uncle continue to evolve without Nat becoming simply a man-shaped enabling presence: he’s cautious that his nephew stay safe and keep on the right side of things — treating Hal’s ability to see what others have missed as something to be nurtured, but not without caution. And it’s lovely to see Hal’s respect growing for Nat, too, in little instances away from these mysteries: not bringing the games console he was so worried about charging on their first journey, say, and understanding the importance of Nat’s work being done with the minimum of interference or distraction. These two are wonderful company, and I’m excited to open more of these books just to spend time with them. The presence of an intriguing adventure with well-observed minor characters and a light sprinkling of setting-specific details is simply the (very thick) icing on the cake.

Add in little touches of verisimilitude — you can’t pass between carriages while in a tunnel, because the fumes from the engine will stink out the carriage — and a soupçon of the bizarre which undoubtedly comes with any sort of extended exposure to the public at large (hello, Julio) and you have another intelligently written, wonderfully engaging, and hugely enjoyable time. Man, I hope this series runs and runs and runs.

~

The Adventures on Trains series by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman

1. The Highland Falcon Thief (2020)
2. Kidnap on the California Comet (2020)

3. Murder on the Safari Star (2021)
4. Danger at Dead Man’s Pass (2021)
5. Sabotage on the Solar Express (2022)
6. The Arctic Railway Assassin (2022)

2 thoughts on “#878: Minor Felonies – Kidnap on the California Comet (2020) by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman [ill. Elisa Paganelli]

  1. What I really appreciate is, that they are all different enough from each other in theme and tone to not feel the same.

    1 is probably the most childlike with an eccentric cast and a comparably harmless crime and villain.
    2 does have some red herrings, but (aside from Hal and Co. of course) it’s really mostly about both Marianne and the character, who had the idea for her kidnapping, and what makes them tick.
    3 could really be a Golden Age Murder Mystery from the 1930s, involving a locked room (and also has some great stuff about animal rights).
    4 is a country house family mystery with a touch of horror story thrown
    and 5 is an action/adventure story.

    If I have to rank them, it would be 3, 4, 1, 2, 5.

    But none of them is bad. My sole problem with 2 is just that I solved the whole mystery pretty early.

    And with 5 it’s just that too much action tends to bore me in a book a bit. But it has still lots of good stuff, an excellent enviromental theme and some great character moments that show, how people can act in a crisis.

    Like

    • You’re right about the variations in tone and content — I imagine that makes them more appealing from a writing perspective, too. And, hey, it means that there’s plenty of legs in the series yet, which can only be a good thing 🙂

      Like

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