Glamour of travel adds to mystery

Andrew Martin is back with his latest railway detective novel, this time set in Baghdad.Chris Bond speaks to the York-born author.

The last time we saw Captain Jim Stringer, he was caught up in the murderous events of the Somme, during the First World War.

In Andrew Martin’s latest detective novel, Stringer finds himself dispatched to Baghdad having been invalided out from the Western Front. But it proves equally perilous as the railway sleuth finds himself doing battle not only with the ferocious heat of the Middle East but an enemy that may, or may not, be closer to home than he realises.

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The Baghdad Railway Club is the eighth in the Jim Stringer series, but why did Martin decided to throw his protagonist into such a hostile, alien world? “In 1917 the war was still going on but a new phase had started in the Middle East and this was the first time we invaded Iraq, or Mesopotamia as it was. The Germans were trying to build a railway from Berlin all the way to Baghdad and the British were trying to stop them because they wanted their own line, so the railway element was there,” he says.

Such exotic locations seem a far cry from the rolling Yorkshire landscape that provides the backdrop to his previous books in the series like The Last Train to Scarborough and The Blackpool Highflyer. “To me places like Scarborough, York and Halifax are glamorous, but I’m not sure other people feel the same way and I wanted to take him to a completely alien place.”

The locations aren’t the only things that have changed. “Stringer has his own biography and he’s going up in the world. He has connections to the secret service and he’s gone from being an engine cleaner to a captain. He started off as this gauche figure in The Necropolis Railway and he’s slowly become more cynical and the books have also become gloomier than they used to be, but I like that tone,” he says.

The 49-year-old writer’s fascination with railways dates back to his childhood in York. His father worked for British Rail and Martin remembers as a child listening to the sound of the trains shunting the loose wagons.

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For many people, steam engines are wrapped up in a nostalgic idea of the past. “Paul Theroux said he went looking for trains and found people and I know what he means. In the old compartments you were very close to people, it was like a little snug. You were sat there for three hours and you could either stare at the person opposite you, inventing stories about them, or you could talk to them.”

But he feels modern rail travel has lost its lustre. “Rail journeys used to be much more leisurely, whereas now there’s too much noise and I find the constant announcements annoying. I don’t actually enjoy train travel any more,” he says.

At least his detective series allows him to hark back to the steam age, not that his books are old-fashioned or twee. “Historical novels don’t have to be quaint chocolate box affairs, people swear in my books even though some readers don’t like that. They seem to think people didn’t swear in Edwardian times when I know for certain that they did,” he says. Perhaps the series’ most interesting aspect is the way he’s allowed his protagonist to evolve. “He gets pitched into situations that initially he doesn’t understand. He actually gets a lot of things wrong and doesn’t always get it right in the end, but I wanted a detective who wasn’t a superman.

“He’s also working class, unlike most detectives, and he has a chip on his shoulder that makes him interesting. I think the series has become romantic in a way and he’s become this glamorous Tintin type figure and I’m having fun with that.” It sounds like Jim Stringer hasn’t reached the end of the line just yet.

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The Baghdad Railway Club, published by Faber and Faber, is out next Thursday, priced £12.99

Andrew Martin: Literary routes

Martin was born in 1962 and grew up in York.

His father worked on the railways for 40 years.

Martin trained as a barrister but swapped this for a literary career after being named The Spectator Young Writer of the Year in 1988.

His debut novel, Bilton, about the dissolute behaviour of a lifestyle journalist, was a merry blend of Evelyn Waugh and Alexei Sayle.

In 2002, the world was introduced to Jim Stringer, the steam detective, in The Necropolis Railway.

His last book in the Stringer series, The Somme Stations, won the 2011 Ellis Peters Award.

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