Book of the Month Club: Inspector Colbeck’s Casebook by Edward Marston

“‘That’s Menai,’ observed Madeleine. ‘It was designed by Alexander Allan. The LNWR had almost three hundred engines with an Allan design built at Crewe. Only my father could tell you why they were so popular. He drove some of Allan’s goods and passenger engines.’
Estelle was impressed. ‘You really love railways, don’t you?’
‘I have to — I’m married to Robert.’”

Join Inspector Robert Colbeck and his sidekick Sergeant Victor Lemming as they embark on thirteen cases in this anthology specially commissioned by the publisher. As they embark on cases that take them from London to Yorkshire and back again, thanks to the miraculous invention of the railway, they go around and solve cases and while they don’t save the world, they make an impact with the people they meet.

While Marston’s writing isn’t poetry by any means, he still manages to capture the energy and excitement about railways which is inspiring. With few words, he is able to capture the interest that both he and the population in his stories have about this “new” technology, and, more importantly, how the invention of rail made crime both easier to commit and for detectives and police to have the ability to catch them. In terms of stories, two in particular stood out for me: one, “Songs for a Swedish Nightingale”, is about opera singer Jenny Lind, the title referring to her nickname. Lind caused a sensation across Europe for her singing and she makes an appearance here as a main character who, horrors, has been mysteriously kidnapped. “Nightingale” was well-written and though I didn’t find the circumstances or its resolution very believable, it is a touching story worth a read. The second one, “Rain, Steam and Speed”, is about the theft of J. M. W. Turner’s eponymous painting, and involves the expertise of none other than Colbeck’s wife, Madeleine, an amateur painting buff. I found the character of Madeleine to be well-developed and she is a refreshing change from the stereotypical passive Victorian lady; on the contrary, she is an active character, and although the men in her life can sometimes doubt her abilities, she proves them wrong again and again.

The main issue I find is that these stories are not very well developed and the denouement of the stories when Colbeck explains his reasoning is not well explained. There are sometimes even gaps in his logic. In one particular story, Inspector Colbeck concludes that a certain character is a homosexual because he is a particularly meticulous dresser, has his full-length portrait in his house instead of a portrait of his wife, and the fact that he doesn’t have any children with his wife. Logically, this makes no sense because its premisses are poor from the get-go, and Colbeck has no other information to back this claim up. Indeed, a meticulous dresser could indicate other things. It is a stereotype that is terrible to propagate, and it is such poor or unexplained logic applied to other stories that other stories carried. Upon Colbeck concluding that a character is gay, another character remarks “I can never understand people like that”, which might have been historically accurate for the average Victorian gentleman but could still be construed as offensive to sensitive ears.

This book is probably a good read for Colbeck’s already-established fans, but won’t win over any new ones. Loan it from the library.

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