Thursday, January 11, 2024

The Passenger from Scotland Yard

 The Passenger from Scotland Yard (1888) by H. F. Wood

"The Passenger from Scotland Yard" is Wood's cute way of trying to keep the other passengers on the train from guessing who the inspector sent hot-foot after the diamond thief is. [I defy anybody, after reading the descriptions of the five passengers we have our eye on, to NOT know which one the inspector is.] But...I've put the cart before the horse. Five passengers get on board the mail train from London to Dover. As they're getting ready to depart, we learn that a diamond theft has taken place. There is a suspect in the case (who gets nabbed at Dover), but there's an inspector on the train bound for the boat to Paris who thinks that man has been framed. Also on board is the man he believes is the true thief, a couple of con men who hope to get their hands on the diamonds, and another man who claims to be a representative of a tee-totaler society but who may not be what he seems either. By the time they reach Dover, one of their number is dead and the diamonds are nowhere to be found. Who killed him? And where are the diamonds. Did the original suspect really steal them and send them to a confederate in Paris? Inspector Byde (our "Passenger from Scotland Yard") plans to find out.

So....according to E. F. Bleiler, who provides the introduction to Wood's novel, this is the best detective novel between Poe and Doyle (and he doesn't really count Doyle's longer works because they are "detective short stories tacked onto historical romances). Bleiler was apparently a scholar of science fiction, detective fiction, and fantasy literature (and I do actually recognize the name), but I have to say--if this was the best thing going, I'm surprised detective fiction took off at all. Because Wood has a bizarre narrative style. Yes, a detective novelist is trying to pull the wool over the reader's eyes in an effort to surprise her with the solution at the end...but never have I read a book where the detective (here, Inspector Byde) almost seems intent on keeping the clues secret from himself. He never refers to any of his suspects by name, always using the most circuitous methods of description to indicate who he's talking about. And his obsession with mathematical theorems were enough to make me want to pull my hair out. 

I have an idea that the confusion he strews about and the odd little conversations he has with "Grandpa" (one of the prospective diamond thieves already in Paris who wants to steal the diamonds from the original thief) is supposed to be humorous, but it all just made me tired. I've always thought I liked Victorian literature, but the verbose nature of this detective novel makes me think I'm a bit pickier--give me Doyle's style any day of  the week and twice on Sunday. Also, I normally like a good mystery set on a train and maybe I would have liked this one...if it had been a good mystery. One of the blurbs I read about it online said that "the murder comes as a surprise and we are puzzled whether it has any connection to the recent diamond theft." Um, no. Actually "we" aren't surprised at who gets murdered & that they got murdered on the train and "we" were pretty darn sure that it all had something to do with the diamonds. [Spoiler alert: "we" were right.]  , maybe. I think.

First line: The night mail for the Continent stood ready to glide out of the London terminus, the leave-taking friends assembled in small groups upon the platform before the carriage doors were reiterating last messages and once more exchanging promises to "write," when a hard-featured, thick-set gentleman who had been peering out of a second-class window drew back with a slight exclamation of annoyance or disappointment, and sank into a corner seat.

Last line: "Well, yes," he added, in a tone of corroboration--"Q.E.F."


Deaths = two shot

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