After the success of his comic golden age of crime thriller Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone and the continuing resurgence of golden age crime narratives (including Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot movies and the Knives Out series) it is no surprise that Benjamin Stevenson has returned to the well for Everyone on this Train is a Suspect. The problem that Stevenson has, though, is in the framing of the first novel as a kind of memoir that happens to follow the rules of a golden age of crime mystery. The only way to fix this, of course is to completely lampshade this as a sequel – “My publisher tells me sequels are tricky” – early on. But also to continually assure readers that they are going to get more of the same.
Everyone on this Train is a Suspect is another classic golden age murder mystery. A group of characters in a location that they cannot easily leave, the death of someone who they all, for various reasons, have a motive to kill, plenty of secrets, puzzles and then more deaths. The problem with this using the same conceit, is that while this kind of worked once, and amusingly so, the narrator Ernest Cunnigham, an amateur detective, has to go to great lengths to try and justify how this could happen to him again. That is, being central to a “real life” story that just happens to comply with a bunch of arbitrary narrative rules. There is clearly an appetite for golden age style crime narratives, and they are enjoyable. They are less so when the reader is constantly being reminded about the conventions that made the genre enjoyable in the first place.
Once again, reading Everyone on this Train is a Suspect is like attending a magic show with the world’s smuggest magician. The type who every few minutes reminds you that you are being tricked and that if only you paid attention enough you would see the wires or the false bottom of the top hat. And, of course, much of that patter that is actually part of the misdirection. Because of this Ernest Cunningham quickly becomes a tiring rather than engaging narrator. He will often tell the reader what is about to happen, describe the thing that happened and then explain why the event worked out the way he said it would. All the while withholding just enough information for another reveal down the track. So what was fresh and amusing in the first book becomes grating the second time around.
All of that said, there is still plenty to enjoy about Everyone on this Train is a Suspect. It is a well- constructed mystery, with (as promised) all of the clues in plain sight, even if some of them stretch credibility to the absolute limit. And given it is structured around a writers’ festival, there are some pointed and amusing barbs aimed at writers, writing, fandom, genre snobbery and the publishing industry. And the while the setting of the story is explicitly derivative – on one of Australia’s most famous train journeys through the red centre of the country – it does give a great sense of place. So while the series is delivering diminishing returns, Everyone on this Train is a Suspect will still scratch the itch for the legion of fans of golden age, amateur detective crime stories.
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Everyone in My Family has Killed Someone (Benjamin Stevenson) – book review
- Rules for Perfect Murders (Peter Swanson) – book review
- Ripper (Shelley Burr) – book review
Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.