This queer, black novel is mainly concerned with the special funeral train service which once plied between Waterloo Station and Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. Its hero is an intensely innocent young railway apprentice, who dreams of becoming an engine driver ‘of the better sort’, and its villains – or so it seems – are a bunch of hard-bitten, foul-mouthed colleagues who are apparently up to something dark and dirty.
Set during the closing months of 1903, this book is, as its publishers rightly claim, ‘fabulously rich in atmosphere and period detail’, but this backdrop material is so skilfully woven into the story that it comes across as playfully invented rather than laboriously researched. An introductory note reminds us that for many years funeral trains really did run between Waterloo and Brookwood – they only stopped this business in 1941 – but it seems quite possible that all the additional local colour, lively railway slang and queer facts – are 70,000 people really buried under St Martin’s-in-the-Fields? – come straight from the author’s ‘swirling imaginations’.
Andrew Martin’s narrative technique is so diverting that reader and hero are swept off their feet into a noisy, steamy, antiquated world of great danger. Before the end of chapter two, many dark notes have been struck – not least the reference to ‘a locomotives’ graveyard’ on page 15 – and the story soon turns into a murder mystery. The fact that this compelling whodunit also flowers into an offbeat love story says much for the author’s belief in the light at the end of the darkest tunnel.
The strength of this strange book must lie mainly in the character of its hero.