One bleak Friday evening in January, 1942, Councillor Henry Grayling boards an overcrowded train with £120 in cash wages to be paid out the next day to the workers of Barrow and Furness Chemistry and Drugs Company. When Councillor Grayling finally finds the only available seat in a third-class carriage, he realises to his annoyance that he will be sharing it with some of his disliked acquaintances: George Ransom, with whom he had a quarrel; Charles Evetts, who is one of his not-so-trusted employees; a German refugee whom Grayling has denounced; and Hugh Rolandson, whom Grayling suspects of having an affair with his wife.
The train journey passes uneventfully in an awkward silence but later that evening Grayling dies of what looks like mustard gas poisoning and the suitcase of cash is nowhere to be found. Inspector Holly has a tough time trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, for the unpopular Councillor had many enemies who would be happy to see him go, and most of them could do with the cash he was carrying. But Inspector Holly is persistent and digs deep into the past of all the suspects for a solution, starting with Grayling’s travelling companions.
On a bitter January evening in 1942, Henry Grayling, who works at the Barrow and Furness Chemistry and Drugs Company, finishes work and goes to London Euston to catch the crowded 6.12 home to Croxburn. The blackout, in the middle of winter, means that visibility is poor and the reduction in trains in order to save fuel, means that the platform is crowded. All this irritates Grayling and he ends up having to share a compartment with a mix of strangers, as well as several people he knows from his home in Croxburn: Evetts, a despised colleague from the Barrow and Furness Chemistry Company; the local vicar sits beside him and opposite him is a German refugee who Grayling has denounced on no evidence but his own suspicions. George Ransom, a corporal in the home guard, who Grayling has had reason to take to task, and another local young man named Hugh Rolandson are all crammed into Grayling’s carriage.
Later that evening the vicar receives a phone call from Grayling’s much younger wife, pleading with him to come to the house – where her husband is on the verge of dying. When he arrives, the doctor has already been, but it is too late – Mrs Grayling, tells a the vicar of hearing a noise at her door and finding her husband collapsed on the steps outside, already blind, and struggling to breathe. His case is missing – as of course are the £120 in wages that were in it. The post-mortem results are a surprise – he was killed from a dose of mustard gas (which isnt a gas after all). How could he be killed by something so toxic without anyone else on the train be affected? Or was he killed on the walk home and if so, how?
This is not a traditional police procedural – you get to see very little of Inspector Holly as the rest of the book is mainly taken up with the back stories for each person in the carriage, and how they ended up being suspects in a murder case. Evetts has been accused (correctly) of stealing drugs from the stock room, the vicar knows Grayling’s not religious and uses his church wardenship for unethical reasons; Hugh Rolandson has been having an affair with Grayling’s wife Renata for several years. Ransom’s story in particular was a little too detailed for me and I was surprised that he would share this kind of information with a Home Guard colleague, even during the quiet times on duty whilst waiting for the bombs to come…..
It’s only in the last few chapters that Inspector Holly comes back into the frame as he tries to pull all the threads together, and he realises that there’s one specific tale that has a major flaw in it, and he manages to determine the killer (at pretty much the same time as the reader).
In summary: a different way of telling a crime story, that got bogged down in parts just a tad with just a little too much information, but was a nice change in approach that will stop people getting too jaded in reading this style of novel
About this author
Raymond Postgate was born in Cambridge in 1896, the eldest son of the classical scholar Professor J.P. Postgate. He was educated at St. John’s College, Oxford. During the First World War he was a conscientious objector and was jailed for two weeks in 1916. He married Daisy Lansbury, the daughter of George Lansbury, pacifist and leader of the Labour Party. His career in journalism started in 1918 and he worked for several Left-wing periodicals. He was also Departmental Editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica for its 1929 edition.
His son was Oliver Postgate, the popular creator of many classic British television programmes for children.