Friday, September 7, 2012

The Necropolis Railway: Review

The Necropolis Railway by Andrew Martin is first book in a series starring railway man Jim Stringer.  It is billed on its cover as "an ingenious and atmospheric thriller" (Daily Express, London) and "a masterful novel about a mad, clanking fog-bound world (Simon Winchester, author of The Professor & the Madman), but quite honestly ingenious, thriller and masterful aren't the words that come to mind. I will admit that it's got plenty of that.  There are bits where the atmosphere is perfect--the reader is plopped down in Edwardian England and it feels right.  But then there's that dream-like, misty-edged, through-the-looking-glass atmosphere that makes the reader stop and flip back through several pages, look up, and say to oneself, "What the heck just happened there?"  It doesn't help that all sorts of unfamiliar terms (mostly railway, but not all) are thrown about like everyone knows an encyclopedia's worth of railway jargon.

The story is, on the surface, an interesting and inventive one.  It's 1903 and Jim Stringer, a butcher's son from Yorkshire, dreams of being an express driver--he do love him some speed.  His dad would prefer that he follow in his footsteps, but sees the trains in his son's eyes and agrees to railway a porter.  But Stringer meets Rowland Smith, a man with connections to the London and South Western company, and it looks like he's on his way to fulfilling his dream.

He heads to London where he meets nothing but trouble.  He isn't assigned to the section of the railway he expects.  Instead, he's going to be serving on engines that transports coffins along the "graveyard line."  And his railway mates aren't--matey, that is.  He's not sure if they just don't like him because he seems to have an "in" with the bosses or if they think he's there to spy on them or because he's come from the country and doesn't fit in with their ways.  And then he discovers that his predecessor just disappeared....and there seem to be an unusual amount of railway deaths related to the Necropolis Railway.  The more he hears about his predecessor, the more he wants to find out what happened to him....and his questions and investigations soon put his life in danger.  Will he find out the truth before he receives his own one-way ticket on the graveyard train?

When I saw this book at the Friends of the Library Bookstore and I read the synopsis, I was instantly intrigued.  I wish I could say that the book lived up to its promise--but it didn't.  The best parts were the atmosphere (the good, historical atmosphere) and the last-minute twist at the end.  And the few good quotes I was able to glean.  The negatives: 1) Jim Stringer really isn't a character that I ever got terribly interested in.  I kept reading because I wanted to finish the book, not because I just had to know what happened.  2) I hate ambiguous endings.  Yes, we find out who did it.  But will justice be served?  Who knows.  What's in store for Stringer?  Beats me.  3) Railway jargon out the wazoo.  Unfamiliar terms are okay as long as they're explained--either overtly or through context--and the reader's not inundated with them.  

Overall: Decent mystery buried in the weird, dream-like atmosphere and excessive railway terms.  Okay, but not terrific for two and a half stars.

I would soon learn that in London they are never happy to just do a thing once. (p. 4)

As we pulled away, I leant out of the cab and watched the Bug [a train] disappearing into the complications of the down-main with a great sense of desolation in me; of being a very small person in a very great city, where everything hurtled at too great a rate, and people moved from station to station, life to death, all in the blinking of an eye, with nobody to notice or care, or say that the world had been lost to madness, because the madness had by degrees become the normal thing. (p. 68)

I could've carried on stumbling all day: one direction is just as good as another when everybody about you is dead. (p. 111)


TracyK said...

I read somewhere that the later books in the series are a lot different than the first one. That person liked the first one but not the remaining ones. Maybe it would work the opposite for you. I still plan to try this series if I ever find a very inexpensive copy, but I won't be in a rush.

Lynn said...

mm, well, it doesn't really sound like my type of book either to be honest. It's a shame you didn't enjoy it but thanks for the honest review.
Lynn :D

Carl V. Anderson said...

How especially disappointing given that the book got the atmosphere right. That can sometimes be the hardest thing to get down, its too bad the story doesn't follow suit.

Bev Hankins said...

Carl: Yes, indeed. It seemed like such a good idea...