Article published on March 6, 2015.
Encountering Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Series of crime novels for the first time, the reader may be forgiven for thinking he/she has strayed into a misbegotten BBC TV sitcom loosely based on Under Milk Wood. “Think Robert Buchan crossed with Jasper Fforde and Thomas the Tank Engine … Or Call the Midwife, with crazier nuns, more steam trains and not quite so many babies” as one reviewer expressed it.
And yet the series with its shameless titular borrowings – Last Tango in Aberystwyth, Don’t Cry For Me Aberystwyth – has sold over 250,000 copies, been serialised on Radio 4 and gained a devoted readership. Now Pryce has a new series to be known as The Case Files of Jack Wenlock, Railway Detective of which The Case of the ‘Hail Mary’ Celeste is the opening salvo. (No let-up on the irrepressible punnery, please note.) Just how much wackier he can make this new series remains to be seen but with a first sentence like this one – “It was Tuesday the second of December 1947 when Jenny the Spiddler walked into my office: almost a month before they nationalised my mother.” – it seems likely he can pull it off.
No amount of plot summarising can do the novel justice but here goes. Jack Wenlock is the last of the Railway Goslings: that fabled cadre of railway detectives created at the Weeping Cross Railway Servants’ Orphanage, who trod the corridors of the GWR trains in the years 1925 to 1947. Sworn to uphold the name of God’s Wonderful Railway, Jack keeps the trains free of fare dodgers and purse-stealers, confidence tricksters, German spies and ladies of the night. But now, as the clock ticks down towards the nationalisation of the railways Jack finds himself investigating a case that begins with an abducted great aunt, but soon reaches up into the corridors of power and the greatest mystery in all of railway lore – the disappearance in 1915 of twenty-three nuns from the 7.25 Swindon to Bristol Temple Meads, or the case of the ‘Hail Mary’ Celeste.
His publishers, Bloomsbury, promise “All of the anarchic imagination of the Aberystwyth novels” and it seems likely that we are not to be disappointed.
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Malcolm Pryce © Lesli Lundgreen
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