More Adventures on Trains! With more adventures, and more trains, than ever before!
Because, see, this time 12 year-old Harrison ‘Hal’ Beck and his uncle Nathaniel Bradshaw aren’t just going off on a train-based holiday, oh no. This time, they’ve been invited by a friend encountered in a previous book specifically because of their detection skills.
A puzzling death. A curse. A missing will. Adopting a disguise. He could feel his heart beating. He handed back the letter. He’d made up his mind. “Of course I want to come.”
And so into Bavaria they go, posing as father and son from an obscure arm of a family whose businessman eldest son Alexander has just been found dead on the railway tracks that lead up to their isolated mansion in the mountains. And not just dead, either, but with an expression of severe fright upon his face that implies he was in some way shocked or frightened to death…perhaps as a result of a curse put on the family by the witch Gobel Babelin several generations ago following the death of her son — a curse which promises that the sons of the Kratzenstein clan will perish terribly and before their time. Except, of course, witches aren’t real and curse can’t affect us in this modern age.
This is very different territory for this series, which has previously dealt with decidedly more earthbound matters like theft, kidnap, and murder. And, of course, Leonard and Sedgman do a wonderful job of selling you on the potential for eldritch tomfoolery, gradually shifting Hal and Uncle Nat further and further from the familiar ground that they have occupied before. Slowly, by dint of unfamiliar clothes, false identities, invented backstories, and the need to lie to the people they will be encountering, we’re shifted off the tracks (Ithankyou) of the more corporeal cases which made up the first three volumes of this excellent series. Hell, even Uncle Nat is keeping secrets from Hal, so that our “Drawing Detective” can’t even trust the person who got him into this.
It’s a delicate balance, suddenly going all-in on bats, curses, and mysterious, shrouded women vanishing in the fog, and a simple expedient of a language barrier — Hal speaks no German, though the Kratzensteins all speak English — is a superb ingredient to just occasionally nudge you into the territory of the unfamiliar. Additionally, since their brushes with billionaires and murder have made them at least a little bit famous, Hal must suppress the one urge that has kept him going through these cases, namely the desire to sketch everything, lest this result in them being recognised for what they really are. The end result is “a traffic jam of thoughts and questions in [his] head” so that the impressions Hal takes on are left to simply fester rather than be let out so that he might make sense of them.
So, yes, this definitely rings the changes in a series of intelligent ways, and overlays the gloomy, sepulchral air of the mansion and the superstitious nature of the curse with some magnificent work once again by Elisa Paganelli, supplying a series of vaguely threatening illustrations to heighten the almost Grimm’s Fairytales air of the whole enterprise.
A personal gripe of mine is when we’re told a lot about a family’s structure before we meet the people involved — ‘Susan is Eric’s second wife, and the cousin of Anthony who’s daughter Elaine is married to Sarah’s aunt Jasmine, Milo’s sister’ — and no family tree in the world helps me with this sort of thing…I don’t know why, it’s a peculiar blindness of mine. So I was a little worried when Hal and Nat’s briefing consisted of a lot of this…but, once we get to the mansion and everyone is introduced, they fell into their respective places very quickly even for my dull-edged excuse for a brain. Hal has to contend with three young ‘cousins’ — siblings Hilda and Ozan, and Herman, son of the dead Alexander — who all end up playing their parts in the mystery, and the dynamic between the four, and Herman’s half-brother Arnie, plays well and develops nicely throughout.
There are also some beautifully arch scene featuring the adults, something no family funeral I’ve ever attended is without, such as this wonderful exchange between Alexander’s first wife and his long-lost sister, Freya:
“You didn’t go to either of Alexander’s weddings — why attend his funeral?” She raised her eyebrows. “Perhaps you are happy he’s dead?”
“Oh, Bertha, you’re so sweet,” Freya mocked. “It’s such a mystery to me why Alexander left you and ran away to Berlin.”
Crucially, the adults seem just as much in the thrall of the curse as the children — the adults were raised with it, after all — and so the threat will not be dissipated by simple grown-up dismissal…and certainly not when some of them claim to have encountered some visceral scenes and seen a woman matching the witch’s description vanish in front of them. And so the tensions escalate, attempts are made on the lives of Hal and Herman, and before too long the funeral is upon us and everyone is wound to fever pitch. How the various plot elements fall out — including a very pleasing matter of identity that I could kick myself for not seeing — is not really within the purview of this review, but it’s fairly incredible how so many events are explained so simply come the end. And the way the curse plays into things is wonderful — great plotting, really high end stuff from these two that bodes well for the series going forwards.
Another excellent entry in my favourite mystery series, then, and one that highlights how fortunate so many kids reading mystery fiction are today. To have authors this committed to bringing something new to every book, and to ensure that stories are richly imaginative without giving up the grounding in reality that makes them so compelling, is wonderful, and will hopefully make many fans of the genre who will, at some future point, put the excellent lessons being taught here to good use.
See you in Australia for the Solar Express…!
The Adventures on Trains series by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman