Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Rome Express by Arthur Griffiths

Blood on the tracks
The Rome Express, originally published in 1896, is a mystery novel by British author Arthur Griffiths, a former military officer and war correspondent who went on to become a prolific author of Victorian crime fiction. The title refers to the express train that runs from Rome to Paris, with the story taking place in the latter city. As the train approaches Paris, a dead body is discovered on board. At some point during the last hundred miles or so, a man has been murdered—stabbed to death in his sleeping compartment. Since the last portion of the journey was a nonstop stretch, the train car makes a convenient “locked room” setting for the crime. The list of possible suspects consists of the eight or nine people—passengers and staff—who were present in the car during the timeframe of the murder. Upon arrival in Paris, these individuals are detained by the police for interrogation, and the railroad car that served as the scene of the crime is sidetracked for inspection.

The investigation is led by a French detective named Floçon, who seems to be competent in his duties but displays a blustering personality that makes him out to be somewhat of a buffoon in the story. One of the interesting and unusual things about this novel, however, is that it doesn’t concentrate solely on the detective’s efforts to solve the case. Instead, it switches focus between different members of its ensemble cast. In fact, a couple of the suspects take it upon themselves to assist the police in the investigation. Not surprisingly, Griffiths sets up an Englishman to be the main protagonist. Today’s readers may find it hard to sympathize with Sir Charles Collingham, however, as he continually acts under an antiquated code of chivalry which asserts that (a) women (of good birth, breeding, and financial means) are incapable of committing a criminal act, and (b) even if I a woman did commit murder, to imprison her would be ungentlemanly, as it is a man’s duty to provide comfort and solace to a lady at every opportunity. His myopically sexist and classist attitude quickly gets annoying, and once you figure out the author shares the views of his character it leads to a certain degree of predictability in the plot that follows.

On the plus side, The Rome Express has its fair share of surprising twists and clever touches, but I certainly wouldn’t want to oversell it. There isn’t a whole lot of brilliant detective work going on here. Clues, confessions, and conclusions have a tendency to just fall conveniently into place for the investigators who seek them. For all its faults, however, this novel does manage to mildly entertain. I would put it on a par with some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlock Holmes mysteries, most of which certainly weren’t his best work.
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