The Necropolis Railway by Andrew Martin

Rating 7.0/10
The Necropolis Railway sets a thrilling scene.

When railwayman Jim Stringer moves to the garish and tawdry London of 1903, he finds his duties are confined to a mysterious graveyard line. Perplexingly, the men he works alongside have formed an instant loathing for him. And his predecessor has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. Can Jim work out what is going on before he too is travelling on a one-way coffin ticket aboard the Necropolis Railway?

The Necropolis Railway is the first of Andrew Martin’s Jim Stringer Steam Detective series of novels, and is a historical murder mystery set in the grimy, industrial world of Edwardian London.

Stringer, originally from Robin Hood Bay in Yorkshire, has landed himself a job as a train cleaner down in London after briefly meeting a gentleman called Rowland Smith who strangely seems very generous in giving him a job. Once in London he finds out he is working in the train yard at Waterloo and on the Necropolis Railway, which takes mourners and coffins to a cemetery on the outskirts of the city. In London he has to swiftly adjust to the noise and crowds, but there is also the mystery of the man he has replaced on the railway, who disappeared. As further murders drag the young and slightly naïve Stringer in deeper, he realises that there is something strange taking place on the Necropolis Railway, and he may well be in over his head.

I think what most appealed to me about this novel is the way the heaving, sordid, filthy mass of a heavily industrialised London is brought to life, with the small town Stringer providing an enquiring and slightly overwhelmed point of view. More of a thinker than some of the other characters he meets down the railway yard, his outsider status means that the mystery of what happened to Henry Taylor and why the others don’t like to talk about him sparks his imagination and his investigations are carried out against the background of the strange Necropolis Railway and who the Mr Smith is who got him the job.

Stringer is a likable narrator who has to adjust to how things are done in London, as well as learning how to live by himself, and he develops throughout the book. He is essentially an accidental detective who likes asking questions. Unfortunately, I think I was hoping for more of a shadowy, ‘following strange men in the dark to see what they are up to’ kind of historical murder mystery as there is grave robbing and double dealing, but the story starts to meander a little towards the end and I was left a little deflated at the final unravelling of what had actually taken place. I think it is a case of the characters key to the plot not having quite enough screen time, so who is in league with who, and what their motivations were, gets slightly fuzzy.

Overall, The Necropolis Railway sets a thrilling scene, which those who love reading about London will enjoy, but the thrilling set up of the first half is let down slightly by a woollier second half.

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