Book review: The Somme Stations by Andrew Martin

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The killing fields of France have proved a difficult place to leave.

Ninety-three years after the guns fell silent on the Western Front, the war that was supposed to end wars has inspired more novels than any other conflict in history.

From Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front to more recent publications like Pat Barker’s haunting Regeneration Trilogy, a study of the psychological impact of war on combatants, and Sebastian Faulks’ magnificent Birdsong which took us below ground to the trench tunnellers, it seems no aspect of this terrible war has been left untouched.

Or so we thought.

The seventh book in Andrew Martin’s excellent Edwardian steam train detective series transports his likeable Yorkshire railway bobby to the First World War battlefields and a murder mystery set within a battalion of Railway Pals.

The action follows Det Sgt Jim Stringer and a motley bunch of rail workers from York Station as they join a unit based on the real-life Railway Pals formed by the 17th Northumberland Fusiliers whose tasks include building narrow-gauge railways to move men and munitions to the front.

Martin is very much at home amidst the workings of 20th century railways but far from being a train anorak, he uses his knowledge to pen fascinating fact-based murder mysteries with a compelling air of authenticity and drama.

And throwing his bluff Yorkshire copper in at the deep end of a shell-hole with an obvious enemy in front and an unknown enemy behind is an inspired move, providing an intriguing dilemma for the man more used to dealing with flashers on York Railway Station.

As Stringer lies badly injured at a hospital in Ilkley in October 1916, a ferociously uncompromising military policeman prepares to charge him with the murder of two men in his own company.

To understand why, we return to the early days of the war when Stringer, excited but scared by the thought of fighting, signs up for the Railway Pals battalion.

He is joined by an assortment of train workers including track runners, drivers, ticket collectors, porters, guards and plate-layers, all part of the unique railway hierarchy.

During training at bleak Spurn Head on the Humber Estuary, the battered body of one of the men is found roped to the sea wall and his suspicious death will have repercussions on events in the months to come.

Fast forward to July 1 1916 and Stringer and his company are preparing for the first day of the Battle of the Somme when nerve and luck, strangely ‘out of balance’ in this world of bombs and bullets, will be put to the test.

In the stand-off that follows that first day, Stringer and his comrades must operate the vitally important munitions trains. It’s a job that involves close co-operation and trust at a time when proof is piling up of an enemy within.

Martin’s gritty and sometimes darkly humorous evocation of the mud, blood, squalor and claustrophobia of the trenches raises The Somme Stations far higher than a standard wartime whodunit.

Atmospheric, full of down-to-earth characters and with a well-devised and satisfyingly clever plot, this is superb entertainment for both train and war fiction addicts.

(Faber, hardback, £12.99)