If the genre’s Golden Age had one commendable attribute, it’s that there was no pressure to outdo previous entries in a series by going bigger, louder, or more preposterous with each successive entry.
After Gideon Fell solved a murder in his debut, Hag’s Nook (1933), he wasn’t then required to solve two murders in his second book, and four in his third, and then solve three murders and deal with an international terrorist organisation in the fourth, before — in the fifth — coping with the murder of his wife by said organisation, making it personal when he solves eight murders, catches the leader of the organisation and subjects him to a brutal death and plans a Bar Mitzvah. Instead, each case exists almost as a capsule of its own, with stakes heightening and lowering from book to book, and settings ranging from the grandeur of the Tower of London in the Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) all the way down, three books later, to a single staircase in a boarding house in Death-Watch (1934). It helps that the sole returning characters are Fell, Superintendent David Hadley, and some largely-interchangeable young men and women who get swept along in Fell’s adventures — Mrs. Fell killed off by her creator by the simple expedient of not appearing in any books after that debut — but there’s something immensely calming about knowing that each case isn’t trying to outdo the previous one…because that way nonsense lies.
Blame cinema, I suppose; once movies became behemoths in their own right, and once Hollywood was bitten by the sequelitis which still infests it to this day — and, given the money they make, will do for years yet — it was inevitable that each movie in a franchise would need bigger stakes, more guest stars, and potentially less to actually say as original ideas made room for these. And with this came the one thing that seems to kill off most franchises these days: diminishing returns. As the scope expands, so the personal story that might have made an initial entry so compelling gets lost in the melee, and thus we end up with six (seven?) films in the Terminator (1984-????) franchise, but only two that anyone’s terribly interested in, with five Die Hard (1988-2013) films that the viewer has less and less invested in as they pile in larger threats to decreasing relatability and interest…the list goes on.
And yet in rare instances — the six-soon-to-be-seven-then-eight film Mission: Impossible (1996-present) series, say — sequels work. Okay, not all the M:I sequels are as compelling as each other, but — for reasons that do not fall under the purview of this blog — the trend is being squarely bucked there. And, I’m pleased to say, the expectation of diminishing returns has been neatly sidestepped in the always-enjoyable Adventures on Trains series by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, of which Sabotage on the Solar Express (2022) is the fifth entry. Part of the cleverness of how Leonard and Sedgeman have managed this is by giving, as in the Golden Age, each novel its own particular focus or genre: country house (on wheels) theft, baffling murder, eerie curse-shrouded mystery…and now — hence the apparently meandering introduction — action movie.
Yup, Harrison ‘Hal’ Beck and his uncle Nathaniel Bradshaw have, in light of services rendered previously in the series, been invited to Australia for the maiden voyage of the Solar Express, the environmentally-friendly train funded by the billionaire August Reza, and before long it becomes apparent that some people might want this undertaking to fail. And when (spoilers?) it does, due to some malfeasance by an unknown, it’s not long before we have the various types who have filled out the casts of these excellent books trapped on a runaway train with disaster and possible death staring them in the face.
The particularly impressive thing about this entry is how the change in focus of the core operation doesn’t feel like too great a wrench from entries which have gone before. As always, we get a careful build-up to the train journey, peppered with potentially-suspicious folk — some of who will be exactly what they seem and some who will most certainly not — and introduced against a background which cleverly allows for the setting to make perfect sense. Here it’s the environmental motivation of Reza, allowing considerations of Big Business, especially those that rely on more traditional fuelling methods, to be stirred in so that it’s clear why someone might want such an undertaking to fail. Without ever talking down to their audience, Leonard and Sedgman manage to make the difficulties of such an endeavour clear (“You’d be surprised how much of business is putting on a show…”), while also looking at the fractious relationship Reza has with his business partner and working in the political motivations of certain people…there’s a lot to consider when you’re positing this sort of world-changing technology, and it’s all dealt with admirably.
Another aspect of this which is especially good is Hal’s lack of enthusiasm about meeting Reza’s daughter Marianne again — hardly surprising given the experience they shared in Kidnap on the California Comet (2020), and a notable change from previous entries where the fellow youth Hal shared his adventures with had always been a welcome presence. And, I dunno, maybe I’m putting too much thought into this, but I just like that the time is taken to make the point that you don’t always have to look forward to the company of other people…especially as young people are so often thrown together by adults purely on account of sharing an approximate age bracket. Sure, the situation soon takes over and Hal and Marianne find themselves working together to save Reza’s train and reputation both, but the fact that time was taken to acknowledge a potential problem with meeting again pleased me.
How things fall apart, and how the various players on the train feature, is better left to the reader to discover, especially as, once things begin to go wrong, we get a series of effective action scenes, loving illustrated once again by the extremely talented Elisa Paganelli. And the decisions made to keep the young people at the core of the action, since this is ultimately a book for younger readers, work, too, even if — given what we learned in previous title Danger at Dead Man’s Pass (2021) — I was a little disappointed that Uncle Nat didn’t get quite as much of a role as I would have liked. One especially clever conceit is the idea that the saboteur might not even be on the train, and that everyone who is on board can use the simple defence that they’d be unlikely to put themself in harm’s way; how this plays out, and how some of the adults fail to acquit themselves in a way that covers them in any credit at all, is unsurprisingly well-explored, with each development cleverly tooled to bring the focus back onto Hal, Marianne, Nat, and the train’s inventor Boaz.
And then, come the end, it turns out there was a neatly-clewed mystery at the core of this all along, with things taking a turn — and don’t be put off by this comparison — which put be squarely in mind of Destination Unknown (1954) by Agatha Christie. That bigger events have been used to obfuscate some smaller mystery that unpicks the whole skein is especially pleasing given that it’s the core of this series, and the easy thing would have been simply to provide some thrills and explosions as part of going bigger and more exciting as sequels have a tendency to do. That Leonard and Sedgman have the intelligence to draw back in the final moments and keep to the principles that have made this series such a delight is hardly surprising, but it’s still delightful to see the successes of these books being recognised and played up to. With one more book to go, and the series on hiatus after that, it’s difficult not to feel a little sad that we only have so much time with Hal and Uncle Nat remaining. But, well, better to get out on a high note than for one future book to be the Terminator Genisys (2015) of the series, eh? I anticipate that final adventure with much eagerness.
Great chapter titles, too; I was a quarter of the way through before I realised what they were doing.
The Adventures on Trains series by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman