Anyone who has heard Andrew Martin talk on stage will have noticed a curious phenomenon. Initially, the writer will appear to be taciturn, all Yorkshire glumness. But then the real Martin appears: iconoclastic, entertaining and often devastatingly witty. The unsmiling exterior conceals intriguing facets – rather like Martin's period novels featuring the railway detective Jim Stringer, which reveal their treasures in subtle fashion.
The Necropolis Railway in 2002 inaugurated his winning synthesis of deftly-sketched historical detail, intriguing plotting and a passion for steam railways that communicated itself even to non-train-lovers (the author has carved out a separate career in TV documentaries). The Somme Stations, while channelling many elements of its predecessors and with the low-key Stringer still at the centre of things, plunges into the horrors of First World War trench combat. Risky territory: is Martin able to invest the crime format with such sombre gravitas?
Newly-enlisted Jim Stringer is shivering in a shell hole as a maelstrom swirls about him. He remembers that even before his team left for France, a member of the unit had been found dead. Stringer and his unit must undertake dangerous nocturnal assignments: driving the trains taking munitions to the front. Death is everywhere as the trains travel through blasted surrealistic landscapes. A single-minded military policeman continues to investigate the killing that occurred before the departure for France and Stringer finds himself in the frame for the murder.
The book's jacket gives no hint of its crime-fiction nature, suggesting a serious novel about war. To a large degree, that is what we get. Because Stringer is no larger-than-life figure, he is an apposite still centre for a novel which treats the soul-destroying terrors of trench warfare with a seriousness worthy of more ambitious fiction.
Yes, there is still the celebration of trains and railways that invariably characterises the author's work, and the murder mystery is dispatched with characteristic aplomb. But the real achievement of The Somme Stations is the bravura picture the reader is given of men in war – a war receding in time as the last participants die, but which Martin subtly allows to stand in for all conflicts. The next Jim Stringer novel may seem slight if it doesn't take on the extra baggage that this one totes so ably.