Set in 1851, this books starts off with a crime – a train robbery (of £3000 worth of gold sovereigns and post on its way to Birmingham) which leads to the serious injury of the driver, Caleb Andrews, and destruction of the engine. The next chapter, in steps Detective Inspector Robert Colbeck of Scotland Yard, to find out who dunnit. Colbeck is straightforward detective story stereotype – he’s relatively well off, tall, slim and handsome; has an abrasive relationship with his immediate boss, Superintendent Tallis; and has a supernatural intuition. Nothing Colbeck does is ever wrong – it’s other people who make things turn out badly. He has a Watson-type sidekick, too – the usual sergeant who does all the tedious legwork so that our hero doesn’t have to, and is conveniently from a lower social class who admires Colbeck almost unreservedly.
The plot of this book hardly bears repeating, and the characters are stereotypes who behave in unnatural and stereotypical ways. Colbeck arrives at his conclusions through intuition, rather than logic (though it’s not presented in that way), and Marston does the lazy thing by showing us the villains and their next dastardly plot rather than have them appear when Colbeck’s investigation finds them. I found Colbeck’s superiority annoying, and preferred his sergeant, Victor Leeming. The appearance of Madeleine Andrews and Colbeck’s growing attachment to her is just silly, as she’s merely a plot device.
However, the one redeeming thing about this book was the historical detail, which was lively and engaging, and made the whole thing readable. Marston does rather too much telling rather than showing, which is why the characters seem to be such stereotypes – after all, it’s obvious from their interactions that Colbeck and Tallis don’t get on very well: we don’t need to be told.
There are far better historical detective novels around: read this one for the historical details, and don’t expect much detection.