by Kate Colquhoun
Overlook Hardcover, 2011
Reviewed by Laura Blasingham
Book Review Editor’s Note: The five laws of library science were proposed by S. R Ranganathan in 1931 and include “Every book its reader” and “Every reader his book.” Part of the librarian’s job is matching book to reader and reader to book, what we call “reader’s advisory.” I love to read the reviews written by fellow librarian Laura Blasingham; she picks books which are a match for me—non-fiction with lots of interesting turns and digressions, absorbing and fascinating and stranger than fiction.
Secrets of a Summer Night
A train pulls into a station. The carriage door opens, revealing an interior soaked with blood. Blood on the cushions, doors, walls, and floor. Blood everywhere. Congealing. The carriage is empty. Lying in the corner, a man’s hat, leather bag, and cane.
The year is 1864. In America, the Civil War rages; men die daily by the thousands. But in London, the battlefield is a small first-class railroad passenger compartment, the soldiers are civilians, the war is between murderer and detective. This event, one of the most talked about and discussed murder of its day, is told in fascinating detail in Kate Colquhoun’s Murder in the First-Class Carriage: the First Victorian Railway Killing.
Coloquhoun gives nothing away. The blood soaked carriage, the abandoned belongings, and inevitably the body itself appear in the order in which they were discovered. The same challenges put before the detectives are the same challenges set before the reader. Is the blood human or animal? Do the deserted possessions belong to one or several people? Where are those people now? And what exactly happened in the twenty minutes between stations—twenty minutes in which a compartment became the scene of a puzzling atrocity?
This lack of foreshadowing draws the reader in and keeps the pages turning. Suspects appear, theories unfold, evidence is disputed, alibis are confirmed. Colquhoun lays out everything in the order in which it happened. We open the door of the blood-spattered compartment, we find the body in the ditch, we examine the lining of a man’s hat.
The setting is equally gripping. As each detail emerges, Colquhoun reveals the historical background necessary to understand its significance. These are the fascinating historical details so loved by nonfiction readers and so often the tedious downfall of the nonfiction author. Not so here. The details are blended seamlessly as the questions are anticipated.
For example, locked train compartments. From the beginnings of train travel in the 1830s and for six decades after, British passenger cars were isolated from each other. No communicating doors, no interior corridors. Travelers were enclosed together in their compartment until the next station. No access to railway employees, no access to other compartments. In fact, proper procedure by the train guard was to lock the compartment from the outside so passengers were unable to exit until a station stop. Only then were the doors unlocked to allow passengers to leave or enter the car.
Astonishingly, the murder discussed in this book was the first to ever happen in a railway car. And despite incidents of crime, including rape, passenger cars remained isolated for an amazing sixty years until the 1890’s when trains began to be built in Great Britain with interior corridors. Ironically, in this incident, the doors had been left unlocked due to a station guard’s rush to keep the train on schedule, hence the empty compartment. Would locked doors have been a deterrent to murder, or did the motives behind the killing override any such concern?
The detectives in charge of finding the answers to these questions are another of Colquhoun’s fascinating historical details. The idea of a detective force was still fairly new in 1864, the first such group having been established thirty years earlier in London. Being new and allied with the puzzling, the mysterious, and the often grotesque, detectives were instant news. They were expected to possess acute mental powers combined with steely resolve. And their failures, their delays, their mistakes were made all the more terrible by these expectations.
Illuminating failures and successes with terrible clarity, newspapers followed the progress of the investigation avidly. Newspapers proliferated in the Victorian era, mobilizing different editions throughout the day as new news arrived.
We think of our day as the age of information but the Victorian era was a time of information and participation in that information. Newspaper editors were inundated with letters from the public throughout this case, letters vocalizing outrage at investigatory delay, admiration for investigatory discovery, dismay at the state of moral depravity, calls for vengeance, calls for clemency.
Many of these letters contained suggestions from armchair detectives expressing deeply thought out analysis of the clues and state of the investigation. The characters of those involved in the case were thoroughly dissected in print. Even the victim’s family became involved, expressing their thoughts with great dignity, their words published with relish by journalists eager to feed a hungry public.
And the public never ceased to hunger for news in this case; fortunately, in this story, the detectives live up to the hype of their stereotype. With no recourse to modern forensic methods, they accomplish the amazing.
As we sit with Colquhoun’s book between our hands, we are literally equipped with the same tools as the detectives of that day. We are not furnished with the fingerprints of the suspects and neither were the detectives. In 1864 Great Britain, fingerprinting was considered unacceptable as evidence and thus discounted. We are not provided with blood samples to analyze. Neither were the detectives. Blood analysis was an undiscovered science. Even determining whether blood was human or animal would not be available for another thirty years. In fact, identifying a substance as blood was advanced science at that time.
Without forensics, the detectives are left with the physical pieces of evidence, an intimate knowledge of class distinctions and neighborhoods, rewards for good leads from the public, and a lot of inspired guesswork. They take us along with them as they probe and analyze, guess and sift. And in the end, is their quest satisfied? That’s for you to discover.
Kate Colquhoun delivers a tightly told tale from beginning to end. Her lack of foreshadowing combined with a skilled blending of historical details with events grip with tenacity. And you will be consumed in discovering the secret of what happened in a first-class railroad carriage on a warm July night in 1864.