Written by Andrew Martin — Can you imagine an ‘anti’ version of Downton Abbey? What would it look like? Maybe the pretty-but-featureless countryside would be exchanged for rugged, dramatic, industrial cities. It wouldn’t portray the class divide as a reassuring comedy of manners, that’s for sure. Instead, simmering tensions might be hinted at, suggesting that things were going to change in the future. Perhaps the serving classes wouldn’t be portrayed as ungrateful theives or forelock-tugging decent types, but as individuals with pride and aspirations that aren’t so easily fulfilled. Finally, maybe the anti-Downton Abbey wouldn’t view the Great War from afar, but transport you to the centre of the hysteria, duty and death on the battlefields of the Somme. We’d see what life was like for the ordinary soldier whose officers bore him nearly as much disdain as his enemy in the German trenches.
Don’t worry if you can’t imagine it, because it already exists. In print. It’s called the Jim Stringer Steam Detective series by Andrew Martin, and The Baghdad Railway Club is the eighth instalment. Last year Martin won the CWA Ellis Peters Award for best historical novel with Somme Stations so expecations are high for The Baghdad Railway Club.
Jim Stringer started off an apprentice on the railways, desperate to be put ‘on the plate’ and become a driver. Instead he’s diverted into the Railway Police, but he never loses his fascination with steam-powered locomotion. In London he meets then courts his wife, then graduates to Detective on the platforms of the grand York Station. At the start of the Great War he enlists in the North Eastern Railway Battalion, otherwise known as the Railway Pals. He is injured at the Somme after investigating the suspicious death of a colleague and returns home a captain.
This book takes up the story in 1917 and Jim is back at duty as a detective at York Station. However, The Chief, who is only ever referred to as The Chief, has arranged for him to meet Manners from the War Office. The War has moved east now into Mesopotamia and the British have routed the Turks and taken over the region. This means rebuilding the damaged railways and the Royal Engineers are trying to do just that. However, there is a suspicion of treachery. Lieutenant-Colonel Shepherd is said to have accepted a bribe from the fleeing Turks. Is he assisting them?
Jim is dispatched and goes undercover as a railway advisor to investigate, but his contact Captain Boyd is discovered murdered in an abandoned station. No further help will be sent, so Jim is on his own catching the murderer, and preventing a giant betrayal of the British effort. He has to do so whilst navigating an unfamiliar landscape, avoiding getting caught up in an Arab uprising, fighting off a case of malaria during a sweltering Baghdad summer, and treading a careful path as he investigates members of the officer class.
Two things make this series soar. The first is the author’s evident love of Britain’s northern working class and its history. Never do you get the sense that these people are being – even slightly – mocked or patronised, something which often occurs in historical fiction, unfortunately. The second is Martin’s ear for language, particularly the peculiarly northern sardonic humour, which he gets right every time. Stringer’s internal monologue and actual conversation feels absolutely authentic.
A WWI army railway unit is an unusual milieu for a crime story, but The Baghdad Railway Club continues the tradition for compelling reading in the Jim Stringer series. You can finds all sorts of Brit Grit on our site from Tartan Noir to Mockney Gangsters, but no other British crime series has been as ambitious or successful.
Faber and Faber
CFL Rating: 5 Stars