The year is 1851 and the world's first train robbery has just occurred on the London to Birmingham line. How did the robbers know that this train was carrying gold coin? How did they get into the state-of-the-mid-19th-century-art Chubb safe? Why did they force the fireman to run the engine off the track after the robbery?
Difficult questions face Inspector Robert Colbeck, who is assigned the case with his sergeant, Victor Leeming. Scotland Yard, which is actually New Scotland Yard, which of course is really the London Metropolitan Police Service, is in its early days under only the second commissioner, Richard Mayne, who has a bit part in the book. Colbeck works for Superintendent Edward Talis, a retired major who runs his office like a military unit, and he is "the yard's" most successful detective despite Talis rather than because of his help.
This mystery is unusual in that we learn about half way through the book who is the mastermind behind the robbery and it isn't difficult to figure out what he plans to do in the future. Nor does the reader have to struggle to figure out why he undertakes this complicated crime - or why he has three people murdered in its aftermath.
Colbeck and Leeming interview the fireman and the guards and as soon as he recovers sufficiently from being beaten about the head with a pistol butt, Caleb Andrews, the driver (engineer in the US.) When an attempt to blow up a tunnel (built by one of the Stevenson family of engineers) goes bad Colbeck is able to predict what the gang will do next and to forestall them.
The book is full of information about trains and tunnels and engines, all of which I enjoyed learning about. And the dashing Colbeck, who is a barrister who decided to become a police officer instead of a lawyer, is an interesting main character. This is the first of a series and I look forward to more of the Railwlay Detective.
2012 No 118