IT’S been a seven-year wait for fans of one of Britain’s favourite historical sleuths, but now he’s back.
Jim Stringer, railway policeman and hero of nine previous novels by award-winning York-born author Andrew Martin, returns for his 10th adventure in Powder Smoke, a whodunnit set in the Yorkshire of 1925.
The action moves between York, Leeds, Bolton Abbey, Knaresborough, Pickering, and Rosedale Abbey, as Stringer investigates two murders against a backdrop of cowboy stories and films, with a cast of characters that includes a fairground sharpshooter from Sheffield.
“I’m interested in cinema and I like cowboy films, so I thought I’d do a western,” says Andrew. “But the joke, really, is that it’s all set in Yorkshire. It’s a Yorkshire western with trains.”
Stringer’s last appearance was in 2014’s Night Train to Jamalpur, the same year that the Stephen Joseph Theatre adapted one of his earlier adventures, The Last Train to Scarborough, into a production that had a sell-out four-week run.
Andrew’s Jim Stringer novels have been critically acclaimed for their wit and stylishness – and saluted by the Crime Writers’ Association, which gave its Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award to 2011’s The Somme Stations – but it was reader requests that prompted his 10th case after a break of seven years.
“I did nine and thought I’d try something else. I reached the point where I thought I’ve kind of done this now, but I always enjoyed doing them,” says Andrew. “Not to boast, but I have a contacts form on my website and the majority of people writing to me asked the same thing – when will there be another Jim Stringer novel ?And not just for that reason. I like Jim Stringer.”
The character’s roots – and his setting in York – lie in Andrew’s childhood: “He came about because I grew up the son of a railwayman in York, and I had free first class travel. I spent a lot of my adolescence dreaming on trains, coming back from London aged 13 on my own on what was known as the milk train at one in the morning in a first class compartment. So I equated trains with my imagination.”
His writer’s imagination was sparked by learning about a railway line built in 1854 to carry funerals and mourners to a cemetery south of London. Andrew’s publisher asked what sort of novel could arise from that.
“I said, ‘Well it’s not going to be a romantic comedy, is it?’ It’s a natural subject for a thriller. So I thought I needed a protagonist who was an Edwardian railwayman, a young lad who’s rather naïve. That’s how Jim Stringer came about.” His debut was 2002’s The Necropolis Railway.
Imagination is also central to his research. Andrew, 58, lives in London but returns frequently to Yorkshire. “I go to places, like modern-day Leeds, and extrapolate from that, try to block out anything that’s too modern and imagine what it would have been like in the 1920s.
“I was walking around Leeds with a map of the streets from 1910. Somebody came up to me and asked me for directions, and I said ‘It’s on this map, but I should warn you that this map’s 100 years old’. They just walked away.”
Historical crime fiction – or “cosy crime” as it’s sometimes labelled in bookshops – is immensely popular with readers, and its appeal is clear to Andrew. “There is a certain reassuring cosiness about the past, and the paradox of the crime novel is that you need that sort of security.
“The past to my mind is more romantic. In a way, the early 20th century is a more beautiful time than now. There was no plastic, no fluorescent light, there was gaslight, it was more moody, people were better dressed. And if you’re going to be writing about railways, then steam is the obvious way to go because railways were so much more characterful and charming in those days.
“It’s difficult to write a modern-day crime novel because technology creates a great problem. It’s hard for any character to be elusive because everybody’s online all the time and the techniques of the police are so much more technological than they used to be. In the past it was a bloke walking around with a notebook.”
Fascination with crime and railways runs through Andrew’s life, as it does in much of his prolific output as an author – more than 20 books, both fiction and non-fiction, half of which have a railway theme.
Growing up in York, he would go to the crown court to watch murder trials. After university at Oxford, he qualified as a barrister but the pull of writing was powerful, and that’s the direction he chose.
“I always wanted to write, so I thought I could combine being a lawyer and writing novels, but I don’t think I would have had the energy to do it. It might have been easier to write crime novels if I’d been a barrister, in the sense of knowing about the law and meeting criminals.
“I need to write a lot, I’ve never really had a big bestseller. I can’t afford to have writer’s block, I like writing and it’s necessary for me to be writing, otherwise I’d be stuck with ordinary life. The only time I really get out of the house is when I’m writing non-fiction, and meet people and talk to people, which I enjoy, and that can also serve the fiction because you remind yourself what people are actually like.”
How prolific Andrew is will be underlined in May, when he has another book out, Steam Trains Today, about Britain’s network of heritage railways, in which the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and the Keighley and Worth Valley line feature prominently. “It’s a phenomenon unique to Britain, a wholesale attempt to stop the clock,” he says.
“There are more than 100 of these preserved railways, and nothing like it in any other country. You can go onto them and encounter a retired chap who’s spent 20 years since he gave up his job being a steward in a 1960s buffet car. So he’s like an actor, in a way, on what are giant stage sets and I find that really interesting, but I also just enjoy going on them.
“For a long time my whole leisure activity if I had a day off would be to go on a preserved railway with some sandwiches and a flask of tea and shuttle up and down a few miles of railway line in a carriage that probably just reminded me of my childhood and daydreaming.
“The title is from a notice that I saw outside Haworth station on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, one bright and sunny morning. I’d just driven across the moors from Bradford to get there, and this old chap came out and set out that sign, and I thought, ‘We’re in for a good day here’.”
The book was intended to come out last year, but postponed because Covid-19 shut the heritage lines. And there will be more from Andrew, a married father of two adult sons, next year, in a personal memoir about his home county. “It’s my take on Yorkshire, not just York.”
Virtual book launch next week
Andrew Martin will be talking about Powder Smoke and taking questions at a virtual launch for the book on February 4 at 7pm.
The event is free and hosted by Explore York Libraries and Archives.
Details of the launch and how to register to attend can be found on the what’s on section of exploreyork.org
Two of his previous Jim Stringer mysteries, Murder at Deviation Junction and Death on a Branch Line, were shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award, and in 2008 the series was shortlisted for the CWA’s Dagger in the Library Award.
His other new book, Steam Trains Today, will be published by Profile Books in May.
Andrew’s website can be found at jimstringernovels.com
Powder Smoke, by Andrew Martin, is published by Corsair at £16.99.
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