|1st UK edition (Pearson, 1912)|
True to the title of the collection each story features some facet of railway business and the daily operations of train lines. The detective in question, Thorpe Hazell, in addition to his remarkable knowledge of railways is one of the earliest oddball detectives. Hazell is a zealous vegetarian and overall health nut constantly proselytizing about the best exercises to improve digestion and counseling all his clients to eat less meat, more lentils, drink milk and pass on the whiskey. Ironically, he does all of this while smoking cigarette after cigarette. Guess the evils of tobacco had yet to be discovered. Whitechurch has a lot of fun with Hazell whose eccentricity is clearly meant for laughs and is probably also meant as satirical jibes at the early 20th century fitness fanatics.
There are fifteen stories in Thrilling Stories of the Railway but only nine feature Thorpe Hazell as detective. Not all of those tales are true detective stories either. Most follow the timeworn formula laid down by Conan Doyle in which the client seeks out the detective, relates a story curious enough to elicit interest in the detective, and then the game is afoot. But there are other tales that are pure adventures and two that are more like Wodehouse's comedy of manners as in "How the Bishop Kept His Appointment", basically nothing more than a shaggy dog story in which Whitechurch gets to make fun of his own profession -- the clergy.
|1977 facsimile reprint (Routledge & Kegan Paul)|
In "Sir Gilbert Murrel's Picture" a train car is loaded with some valuable paintings but when the train pulls into the final station the car with the paintings has vanished. Yet the train made no stops where the car could have been removed. This particular story is the pièce de résistance of the collection. Whitechurch is utterly ingenious in how he reveals the elaborate operation involved in making the train car disappear. Not as high tech as the Banacek episode "Project Phoenix", also about a train car that disappears, but for the early 1900s Whitechurch's trick was an enviable feat of mechanics, timing and team effort. Pure genius in storytelling, too.
Reading the stories in quick succession reveals one of Whitechurch's repeated motifs -- the switcheroo. In at least four stories the plot involves exchanging one item for another in the course of the crime. Switched luggage, switched dispatch-boxes, a genuine painting replaced with a forgery... It got to be repetitive and showed his one weakness for sticking to a formulaic plot device. I was reminded of the major criticism of Gilbert & Sullivan's operettas with Sullivan being obsessed with the idea of topsy-turvy worlds
Though the original 1912 edition remains an elusive prize periodically the 1977 facsimile reprint shows up for sale. I found my copy in the amazing COAS bookstore in Las Cruces, New Mexico a couple of years ago. I say amazing because 1. the store is the largest used book store in the Southwest and is truly awe-inspiring and 2. my copy cost me only $3.00. Someone made a huge mistake on that pricing! Maybe you will luck out as well and find a copy at a steal. Right now there are several copies of the Routledge & Kegan Paul reprint for sale via various used bookselling sites ranging from $2 for a passable reading copy to $48 for a fine copy in fine dust jacket. Anyone charging more than $50 for this particular edition is no reputable dealer in my opinion.
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Here's another box X'd out on my Golden Age "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge" Bingo Card. This book satisfies the space E4 ("Read a Short Story Collection").