We're in York, 1906. The fairest city of the north "unchanged for centuries, with its ancient streets, cobbles, shadows, funny little smoke-blowing chimneys on powdery faced sagging houses, bakeries, drug stores and tearooms. At its centre, the Minster, the great black cathedral, Minotaur of the labyrinth."
But just outside the city's medieval walls is another mighty cathedral which fans of this author will know has even greater significance. With its elegant canopies of glass and acres of track, it is a monument to that most contemporary of gods - the steam engine.
However, there is something amiss at York station - and followers of Andrew Martin's two previous detective novels set on the railways at the turn of the century may not be surprised to see the reappearance of our hero, fireman Jim Stringer. Although good, decent Jim has given up his job on the footplate and become a detective in the railway police.
With this book, Martin is even more in command of the genre he has made his own - a cocktail which evokes unsentimentally the flavour of industrial working class life, depicts faithfully the great age of steam and offers a cracking good thriller into the bargain.
Rivet counting isn't usually all that riveting, but it is in the hands of Andrew Martin as a wages snatch in a York engine shed leads to murder and a breathtaking chase down the country's main lines and across the Channel to Paris. You can almost smell the sulphur, the steam oil and the grease - and no trainspotter would be disappointed by the book's attention to detail (Did you know the number of rail joints that click in 41 seconds gives the speed in miles per hour? Or that the cabs of North Eastern Railway locos were set too low for drivers to look out of properly?)
But this is no affectation. In the age of easyJet and Virgin, we forget the degree to which the railways were once woven into the fabric of the nation. Talking of the North Eastern Railway, Jim's police boss tells him: "York is the biggest and busiest station in the country. It is the administrative centre of the company, its geographical centre and the biggest employer of men by far. Shall I tell you one thing about York that isn't to do with the railway? Well, I can't!"
Whether it is the luggage or the porter in the title of this book that is lost (or both) I don't propose to divulge. But I can reveal that after his closest brush with death yet, railwayman Jim lives to tell the tale. Thank goodness. He must be preserved as the best sleuth that 200 years of the railways have ever produced.Reuse content