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The Blackpool Highflyer by Andrew Martin
A steamy whodunnit about a world going off the rails
Sunday 29 August 2004
Few large towns are more miserably served by the railway than Blackpool. No expresses make the trip to London any more: Virgin's accountants saw to that. The connection from Preston to what used to be Blackpool Central is a converted Leyland bus. Central Station, the busiest in Europe in 1905, when this book is set, has long since been demolished.
The decline of the railway has paralleled the slide of the town, now a kind of mausoleum of the Great British Seaside Holiday. The crowning indignity came this year, when the Labour and Tory parties abandoned it for conferences after a torrent of complaints about ante-diluvian boarding houses and austerity cuisine.
Back in the Edwardian heyday of Andrew Martin's novel, it was all different. The Tower, the highest structure in the land, was a beacon to the toilers of the mill towns and suggestive, like its Paris counterpart, of the hedonistic delights of the Continent. From Heckmondwike and Halifax, from Huddersfield and Hebden Bridge, the railways took them in their hundreds of thousands for a hard-won Wakes Week by the sea, and something a bit saucy and glamorous.
So surprise then that at the head of the doomed excursion to Blackpool around which the plot revolves, should be the finest locomotive the mighty Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway could offer: "The Highflyers were high boiler, high wheel rims and high everything, including speed ... It was a hard job to make them shine, but you never saw one not gleaming."
All the more tragic when it came off the rails because of a grindstone placed on the track. But by whom? The book is constructed artfully on several levels. On the one hand it is a steamy whodunnit (literally) from an era when railway culture ran deep. From the whiff of steam to the clank of couplings, the authentic detail is plentiful.
But the psychology is modern. We are in L P Hartley "Go-Between" country here - in the years before the Great War when things were on the brink of "going wrong". The boss was in his castle, literally in the case of Hind's Mill whose works outing was derailed. But the old order was changing, and plenty of folk were around with motive to wreck a train.
Enter Jim Stringer, our decent northern working-class hero whom we have met before in Martin's previous novel, The Necropolis Railway. The fireman on the doomed train, he is a progressive young man, straight from the pages of Raymond Williams or Richard Hoggart, who becomes obsessed by the death of a young woman mill worker on the train. Whether Jim solves the mystery you must read the book to find out - but you are unlikely to be disappointed.
It is astonishing that in this 200th anniversary year of the railways that they have featured so little in fiction. Subtract Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and Patricia Highsmith, and we're not left with much. This may well be the best fiction about the railways since Dickens' "The Signalman" in 1865. And that was a short story.
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