Martin, Andrew - 'The Somme Stations'
This book, number seven in a series featuring "Jim Stringer, steam detective" tells of the sombre events leading to the battles on the Somme in France 1916 during the first World War. Jim as a Detective Sergeant in the Railway Police based at York Station is very excited, as are all his colleagues by the formation of a special 'pals' army unit, The North Eastern Railway Battalion. Prompted by General Kitchener's "Your Country Needs You" posters a lot of factories, large shops and other work places, clubs and societies are forming Army units with their colleagues and friends to go off and fight "The Hun". Jim's wife and his immediate boss expect him to be made an officer. However, the only way his leadership qualities will be recognised immediately, is if he joins the Military Police and Jim doesn't want to this mainly because it is a mounted unit and he doesn't know how to ride a horse! Also he doesn't want to be separated from his colleagues and work mates in the Railway Battalion.
So Jim is off to basic training with his work colleagues before leaving for France. The book is very evocative of its historic basis and emphasises the camaraderie and general good natured friendliness between the men and their immediate superiors. But then one of the recruits is killed before they get into a War Zone. When the ex-work colleagues/soldiers arrive in their support trenches in France after the settling in phase, they use their steam train experience to good use as there is a train line on a reduced gauge. The shortened train is used, under cover of darkness, to ship spare shells and ammunition for the various heavy guns from one end of the trenches to another, over some miles. Jim is an acting train driver, an occupation he enjoys as it reminds him of happier times but the comrades involved in driving the trains have to do it against the barrage of German shells whistling down on them. During these trips, Jim uses the time to contemplate the various killings that have occurred that are not blamed on the war but at the hands of one or more of his colleagues and ruminate on the evidence and consider who could the guilty man be and why did he do it?
Whilst the murders and the subsequent investigation by Company Sergeant Major Thackeray, a military policeman are worrying, as he indicates that he suspects them all individually, the deaths and mayhem that Jim Stringer and his mates experience around them on a daily basis are more troubling. The amount of cigarettes, particularly Woodbines, that the soldiers get through is astonishing but with death from gunfire or shrapnel so common the dangers of smoking were not a consideration then, unlike now.
This book is complete in itself and the author goes to great pains to ensure this, but of course if you have read the previous adventures of Jim Stringer it should be that much more enjoyable. I greatly enjoyed it and thought it very intricately plotted, deeply moving in parts and also horrific when dealing with some of the war injuries the men suffered. If you want a good mystery coupled with a sensitive portrayal of men in wartime, buy it.
Terry Halligan, England