Friday, August 23, 2013

Book Review - Carola Dunn's Murder on the Flying Scotsman

Murder on the Flying Scotsman (Daisy Dalrymple Book 4) by Carola Dunn
Published by: Kensington Books
Publication Date: 1996
Format: Paperback, 256 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Daisy has indulged herself with a first class ticket to Edinburgh on the Flying Scotsman to write her next article for Town and Country magazine. Little does she know as she debates to face towards or away from the engine in the stifling train compartment that the daughter of the object of her affection, Belinda Fletcher, has run away from home and decided to follow Daisy on her journey. Belinda has stowed away on the train and is frantically searching for Daisy. Soon Belinda finds Daisy, but someone else has also found her... Daisy's old classmate Anne Bretton, nee Smythe-Pike, is also aboard the train. Anne doesn't just have a precocious five year old and a baby in tow, oh no, she has her entire family. Four generations totalling fifteen relatives, not to mention servants and the stray heir.

The entire McGowan family tree is rushing towards Dunston Castle as fast as the Flying Scotsman will take them. Called there by the head of the family, Alistair, who thinks his time has finally come. Alistair, whose will is draconian and who has clung fiercely to his money like the miser he is. The will states that he is planning on leaving everything to his brother Albert, and after that his nephew if Albert should die before him, believing that money should be inherited along the male lines. Only now Anne has a son, who she believes should inherit, being Alistair's great-grandson.

Yet there is one thing the family all agrees on, Alistair's brother Albert should under no means inherit. Albert plans to leave his money to an Indian doctor! Doctor Jagai is not only unrelated, but not one of them, in the most racist sense. If Alistair where to die before Albert, then all the family's fortune would end up in the hands of Doctor Jagai. This is unacceptable, which Daisy has to listen to from the endless parade of McGowan's that come through her compartment. Therefore it is not shocking when Albert turns up dead. Every single member of his family had means and motive being trapped on the train together. Daisy just has to figure out who, all while taking care of Belinda. If she could just finagle Belinda's father Alec to be assigned to the case then perhaps things will start looking up.

There is something about trains that so eloquently lends itself to mysteries of the Golden Age of Detection. Whether it's just the bygone means of transport and all the elegance it bestows on the traveler or just the fact that you are locked in a box hurtling through space with someone who might be a killer. Trains bring a frisson of excitement to mysteries. Far more likely then any other reason it is probably because of Agatha Christie and the fact that Murder on the Orient Express is one of, if not the most famous of the books she has ever written. Because of this trains have become staples in mysteries, from Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train, to Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, to the most recent adaptation of The Lady Vanishes, trains lend themselves to murder and mayhem. Murder on the Flying Scotsman taps into this most delicious of tropes and gives us a mystery that you will be speeding through, much as the train hurtles towards Edinburgh.

Where Carola Dunn's writing excels is in her characterization. Besides Daisy and Belinda, she juggles fifteen relatives, a doctor, a lawyer, and several functionaries from porters to police without ever confusing the reader. Christie was only juggling thirteen characters in her famous murder mystery on a locomotive, and here Carola ups it by a considerable number. Not only does she keep each character concise and clear, they are all very distinct people. Sure you could remember them by their broad strokes, anger issues and gout (Anne's father) or bright young thing (Anne's sister Judith) or shell-shock victim (Judith's cousin and true love Raymond), but these traits aren't the sum total of who they are. Carola delves into Judith and shows that despite her more superficial aspects, she could just as easily be a farmer's wife, just so long as that farmer is Raymond. While Raymond, even though he is a prime suspect, you feel so deeply for him with his attacks that come on from loud noises, that if he does turn out to be the killer, well, you know in your heart that you would forgive him. Then there is Doctor Jagai. Can he just be my friend please? Not only is he sweet and philosophical about the whole situation, he is caring and compassionate, looking after Belinda and also trying to help Raymond, someone who should be his rival because of the inheritance, but whose suffering he wants to help remediate.

Though the character that deserves the highest of praises is young Belinda Fletcher. It is so rare to get children right in books. Either they are too precocious or too vicious. The Roald Dahl syndrome if you will. Kids are either too too good or rotten to the core. As a reader, there is no swifter way to alienate me then to have unrealistic children. When Belinda found Daisy, the first thing I could think of was, oh dear, now we enter the overly doting Daisy and the soppy Belinda. My how I was relieved. Belinda was nicely refreshing. She was complex and was able to be sweet and childlike, but not cloying. Polite but not an ingratiating ass. Accepting of others and their differences. Able to keep things together when faced with a dead body. Yet, she was still a child. She did not have that feeling of being written as an adult in miniature. If more authors could get this right I think that the old axiom that applies to actors which can apply to books too "never work with children or animals" could soon become obsolete.


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