Friday, January 31, 2014

FFB: Thrilling Stories of the Railway - Victor L Whitechurch

1st UK edition (Pearson, 1912)
For decades Thrilling Stories of the Railway (1912) has been one of the Crown Jewels for collectors of vintage detective fiction. The original first edition has been one of the rarest of books. What makes it even more sought after is that the stories themselves are exceptional. The book is included in Queen's Quorum, a list of noteworthy short story collections in the history of detective fiction. The stories are notable for a number of reasons but chief among them is that they feature what Ellery Queen likes to call "the first of the specialty detectives."

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)
What distinguishes the detective stories is Whitechurch's sheer ingenuity in the use of trains and the mechanics of railway lines in the the carrying out of a crime. The villainy includes cigar smuggling, con games, theft, kidnapping and murder. There are impossible crimes as well. A boy goes missing on board a train making a nonstop journey in "The Affair of the Corridor Express" and he cannot be found anywhere inside. But Thorpe points out to the less than observant police and train officers that a train has an exterior as well as an interior and uncovers evidence of the surprising location where the boy was hidden temporarily.

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").


21 comments:

  1. More railway mysteries? It wasn't until a few years ago that I learned such things existed. My introduction came through Frank L. Packard, former employee of the Canadian Pacific. If interested, his 1918 novel, The Wire Devils, was reissued last year by the University of Minnesota Press. A railway mystery and a "wire thriller", it's not the best Packard I've read (see: The Miracle Man ) but I really did learn quite a bit about communications and the workings of railways in the early twentieth century.

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    1. As I mentioned once before I have quite a lot of Packard's books. I've read only one - The Locked Book. I know I had a copy of The Wire Devils a while ago, but it might've been sold. I definitely have The Miracle Man and have wanted to read it for a long time now. I'll have to add Packard to the list this year, along with Arthur Stringer who I didn't get to last year.

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  2. Well, I'm positively salivating now John - sounds marvellous and I have never come across this in my second bookstore perusals - well done on your find mate! Us mere mortals are clearly going to have to fork out a little more but it sounds like it is really worth it - thanks chum - and by the way, love that you give the grid settings with each review. As always, you get there first!

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  3. John, I feel the same way as Sergio did. Stories about an oddball detective with knowledge of trains and railway lines has to be good and your excellent review has already got me rooting for this vintage collection. Of course, I'd be lucky to find a copy in my neck of the woods. But one never knows.

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  4. I knew of this collection, but not it was anything more than a collection of novelty stories about a railway detective and I'll have to track down a copy now. Not a first edition, of course, but wasn't this collection recently reprinted? Thanks for the heads up.

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    1. Coachwhip Publications, the indie press that Curt Evans works with frequently, has their own edition which they retitled: The Thorpe Hazell Mysteries, and More Thrilling Tales On and Off the Rails. It includes all 15 stories of the original plus 13 more stories that appeared only in magazines. But I'd go for the facsimile reprint because of the interesting foreword that includes biographical tidbits about Whitechurch and the advertisements in the front and rear matter that make it feel like you're reading the real original edition.

      My revised edition of Adey's Locked Room Murder doesn't even list all the impossible crimes that I would count. It only includes "Sir Gilbert Murrell's Picture" from this volume plus one story published only in Pearson's magazine. I would say at least four other stories qualify.

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    2. Are you suggesting, between the lines, someone with some sort of experise on locked room mysteries should give this collection a look, because "at least four" implies there might be more of them. Now I'm curious!

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    3. Why yes I am! I guess I'm more open to the criteria of an impossilbe crime and to be fair some of them are solved almost immediately. But still -- I counted a murder in a locked train compartment, a boy disappearing, a train car disappearing, and the vanished contents of a bag. To be honest, I posted this essay before I was completely done with the book. I have three more stories to read (all without Thorpe Hazell) and there might be more!

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    4. You do know I didn't need that much encouragement to make this collection a top priority, right? :) I'll first have to take a look at some recent arrivals, but you've definitely piqued my interest.

      Adey's Locked Room Murders really seems outdated today and the revised edition already lists over a thousand titles.

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  5. Looks like someone collected all of the TH mysteries in "The Thorpe Hazell Mysteries, and More Thrilling Tales on and Off the Rails" reasonably priced on Amazon.

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    1. Isn't everything on amazon.com these days? [grumble, grumble] That's the Coachwhip reprint. Some of those additional thirteen tales are about trains, but none of them feature Thorpe Hazell. There are only nine stories with Hazell.

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  6. Very intriguing, John. I like the way you always like to keep things just a little bit out of reach. :) I remember years ago reading Freeman Wills Croft's railroad tails and liking them very much. My ex and I used to read them together. Coincidentally I'm currently reading THE NECROPOLIS RAILWAY by Andrew Martin, a very creepy tale.

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    1. This book is not out of reach at all, Yvette. Like I've mentioned above you can pick up a nice copy of the edition I own (the second one pictured) for under $10. Or even a brand new one from Coachwhip (with 13 more stories!) for about $14.

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  7. Found one on Abe books. Ships from the UK. About seven bucks. Not bad. Says it's hard cover.

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  8. I see one was in the Greene anthology "The Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes", so I must have read it; but there are so many good writers from that early period, that he didn't really register. Curiously, after reading a review on a different blog of this book, I found that there's a Japanese translation in print, ソープ・ヘイズルの事件簿 ("Thorpe Hazell's Casebook"). There seems to be a big market for railway mysteries in Japan.

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  9. I've been interested in trains, real and model railroading, since I was a tad, so this is of great interest to me. I'll have to look for a copy, and yes I saw what you said about availability.

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  10. I've never read the book, though some of the stories are anthologized of course. I must say, Whitechurch's later genre work has always struck me as quite bland, but you make these sounds very interesting.

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    1. Coming later this week: a less than glowing reivew about Whitechurch's imitiation Wodehouse comic crime novel Mixed Relations. As far removed in cleverness and wit from this debut as Oscar Wilde is to Adam Sandler.

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  11. For all the Cumberbatchers out there:

    http://www.amazon.com/Benedict-Cumberbatch-Reads-Railway-Thrillers/dp/1471366162/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1391390936&sr=8-1&keywords=victor+whitechurch+railway

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  12. I love a good railroad mystery...several would be an excellent prize, particularly after your tantalizing review. Adding another to the TBF list.... And, Passing Tramp: Thanks for the Cumberbatch link!

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  13. I just reviewed his Murder at the Pageant. It was an okay read. Going by your review this seems more interesting.

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