Tuesday ’Tec! A Mystery of the Underground by John Oxenham

capital crimes london mysteriesMind the Gap!

 

We tend to think of the serial killer story as a fairly modern invention but this one was originally published in serial form (no pun intended!) in 1897 in Today, a weekly magazine edited by Jerome K Jerome. I came across it in Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards, and since the murders all happen on Tuesdays, it seems like a perfect entry for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

 

A Mystery of the Underground
by John Oxenham

 

John Oxenham  aka William Arthur Dunkerley
John Oxenham
aka William Arthur Dunkerley

As an underground train pulls into Charing Cross station one Tuesday evening, a woman is screaming wildly and trying desperately to get out of a first-class carriage. When the station inspector investigates, he discovers the body of a dead man slumped in the corner of the carriage, shot through the heart…

…they stopped and lifted him out of the carriage. The head fell back as they carried him awkwardly across the platform, and the crowd shrank away, silent and scared, at sight of the ghastly limpness and the stains of blood.

This is just the first. From then on, each Tuesday night a new murder is committed, always in the first-class, and with no indication of how the murderer is managing to shoot someone in a moving train, in a sealed compartment with no linking corridor. Our intrepid detective is Charles Lester, reporter on the Link, who chances to be in a neighbouring compartment when the second murder takes place…

The screams had ceased. The silence seemed even more pregnant. While the screams continued something was happening. With their cessation, it – whatever it was – had happened.

First on the scene, Lester meets the police officer in charge of the case, Detective-Sergeant Doane, and forms an informal partnership with him. More murders follow, with the same pattern to each, told to the reader as a series of extracts from Lester’s articles in the Link and extracts from other newspapers. As panic grows, people start to avoid the District Line on Tuesday evenings, though the stations along the line are filled with sensation seekers…

Throngs of people, waiting silently, in a damp fog, peering into carriage after carriage as the almost empty trains rolled slowly, like processions of funeral cars, in and out of the stations.

Charing Cross Station
Charing Cross Station

But, despite policemen being posted on the footplates and railway workers with torches lining the route, still the murders continue, as some brave or foolhardy souls continue to sit in solitary splendour in the first-class carriages rather than mix with the hoi-polloi in the crowded third-class ones.

The matter is really too gruesome for a jest, but Punch certainly hit the case off admirably in Bernard Partridge’s clever sketch of the young City man attracting all the attentions of all the beauties in the drawing-room by the simple assertion that he had travelled from town by the District Railway, in a first-class carriage, all by himself, while the season’s lions scowl at him from a distance, and twirl their moustaches, and growl in their neglected corners.

Eventually Lester suggests to Doane that he, Lester, should put himself forward as bait. Wearing a protective steel breast-plate, he will travel the line, with a policeman hidden on the seat opposite and two more lying on the roof of the carriage. As Doane later remarks somewhat laconically…

Journeying on one’s stomach, stern foremost, on top of the Underground train, is not a mode of locomotion that I can recommend.

Will the plan work? Or will Lester die a heroic but futile death? Will they ever know the reasons behind the crime? You’ll have to read it to find out…

* * * * *

Overcrowding was a problem then, as now...
Overcrowding was a problem then, as now…

I loved this story. It’s true sensation writing and Edwards tells us in the introduction that it led to a slump in passenger numbers in real life and protests from the Underground authorities. But there’s a lovely vein of humour running through it, and some nice social observations about the avid crowds hoping to see something horrible – a reaction to tragedy and horror that we’re still familiar with today. Oxenham also has a few digs at the class system – at people determined to be ‘first’-class even if it puts their lives at risk. He also speculates on the possible motive, and again there’s an eerie presentiment of present day concerns…

Is it against the Underground railway itself, as a system or a corporation, that this foul fiend is fighting? Or is it some lunatic registering in this gruesome fashion his protest against the influx of foreigners into English business life? – for it is a noticeable fact that three out of the four victims have been foreigners.

Unfortunately, the version in Capital Crimes has been abridged, presumably for space reasons, but the whole section on how Lester finds the killer is simply cut – replaced by a summary paragraph – and then we’re given the final part of the story revealing the motivation. I thought the abridgement was clumsily done, and it took away some of my enjoyment of the story. I can’t find an online version, but it is available as a Kindle book on Amazon – at an exorbitant price though, for a 46-page story. So I do highly recommend it if you can get hold of it, but not so much in the abridged form in this book. I will be adding Oxenham to my list of writers to explore…

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ (but it’s really not trying to be a mystery)

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 (quite possibly five, had it been unabridged)

41 thoughts on “Tuesday ’Tec! A Mystery of the Underground by John Oxenham

  1. Ah, trust Martin to choose really fine crime stories, FictionFan! I’m very glad you enjoyed this one, despite the fact it was abridged. Goes to show you, too, that you can have an intelligent story about a multiple killer without it degenerating into a bloody torture-fest.

    • Yes, at first I thought it might be going to be pure terror, but I loved the addition of a bit of humour and swipes at the avid sensation-seekers. Good fun – pity about the abridgement!

  2. I really like the look of these British Library Crime Classics, they’re beautifully produced. This one sounds very enjoyable, but what a shame about the abridgement. Why rush a crucial element of the story?!

    • I’ve only got the Kindle versions of these crime collections unfortunately, but I’ve had a couple of British Library books in the past and they really are lovely things to possess. I was so disappointed by the abridgement – I can understand the space issues, it is quite a long short story, but I felt it could have been abridged so much better. Cutting out the bit telling us how the crime was solved seemed cruel!

  3. Sounds like a fascinating story, FF. Sad that they felt a need to include an abridged version, though, especially since it seemed to fall flat. Interesting concept for a story, and now I want to know “who” and “why”!!

    • I know – it was the way it was abridged that disappointed me, especially since I was enjoying it so much. They could probably have cut one or two of the murders without the reader really noticing but to cut the crucial bit about how they found the criminal was truly annoying!

  4. I’m not sure a first class meal is worth the risk of murder. Then again, maybe first class in 1897 was far superior. If the seats were fully reclining and the peanuts spectacular, I may take the risk. Is it lazy of me ask whodunnit and why without the reading? I am reading three books simultaneously and fear a fourth would throw my back out. Ah, summer…

    • Haha! I admit his description of the overcrowding in third-class made first-class seem appealing! We’d have been safe anyway – the killer only shot men. Sometimes sexism works out quite well…

      *SPOILER ALERT* It was a disgruntled ex-employee who felt the Railway people had stolen some of his ideas for improvements. Not the most exciting motive but it would still have been nice to know how they got on his trail… I’m disgruntled myself now!

      • Thank you, FF! I can have my cake and eat it too! Wow, not an exciting motive at all. That is one passionate ex-employee, albeit disgruntled. Though I’m glad first class for women was not interrupted. I can get back to my warm first class cookies now…

  5. This sounded quite good–until the abridgement part. What a silly thing to do! You get all this buildup and tension, and then some editor decides to summarize the best part!

    I love stories set in the very late Victorian Age. The Victorian atmosphere is still there, but laden with end of the age anxiety, plus sometimes a tincture of decadence; the Beardsleys and Swinburnes hinting at weird thngs going on in the upper levels of society.

    This story description reminds me to suggest that if you have never seen the “Jack the Ripper” miniseries starring Michael Caine in brilliant form, try to buy it! It is superb; so atmospheric and intelligent. Caine is the real-life detective trying to solve the Ripper murders. The writers of this series actually attempt to solve them, in a compelling way. But apart from any of that, the palpable tension and strangeness of this time is so well coveyed.

    • It was so clumsily done! I felt some of the bits about the murders could probably have been cut without it being too noticeable but to cut the bit that actually explains how they got on the track of the criminal…! Grrrr!

      Yes, I think the real life crimes of the era, not least the Ripper himself, really led to a lot of quite disturbing writing and I do enjoy a bit of sensation writing from time to time. Any story with the phrase ‘foul fiend’ in it, not to mention men twirling their moustaches, is always going to work for me! All it needs is a villain called Sir Jasper or Sir Hugo and I’m sold…

      I think I did see that mini-series many moons ago, but I shall try to fit in a re-watch at some point. Michael Caine is nearly always good value. A book came out last year claiming to ‘prove’ who Jack was on the basis of DNA evidence, but I haven’t read it so can’t say how convincing it is.

  6. Can’t believe “they” just whacked the pieces out of this story. It sounds quite fun.

    Your opening description was quite similar to my husband’s experience two nights ago. He was taking the red-eye from San Francisco to Philadelphia when a “gentleman” in first class started becoming belligerent. Apparently, the flight attendants plied him with ever increasing glasses of wine to keep him quiet, a plan that backfired. He ended up screaming and biting at people, refusing to get back into his seat. The passengers and flight attendants handcuffed him with cable ties then duct taped him to his seat. The flight was diverted to Kansas City, where he was removed by FBI agents. By the time my husband reached Philly, his connecting flight was long gone.

    The “funny” thing was, my husband had used frequent flyer miles to get a seat in first class so he could get a better night’s sleep.

    Anyway, your description of the hysterical woman trying desperately to get out of first class fired a quite responsive synapse.

    • I know – “they” should be punished by being force fed British Rail sandwiches – a fate worse than death!

      Good heavens! That must have been totally terrifying – flying is scary enough! But in truth, the bit of the story that I find most frightening is the idea that the crew had a handy supply of duct tape! One hopes, somehow, that there would be no need for it on a plane! If I heard an attendant shouting up the plane “Could somebody bring me the duct tape” I’d be hyperventilating into the oxygen mask before you could say “Boom!”

    • The collections are great for introducing authors who’ve been forgotten over the years, but I’m finding myself tempted by so many of the books they’re publishing in this series. Hard to resist…

    • Haha! Yes Martin Edwards seems to have taken over the blogosphere at the moment. I haven’t read any of his own writing yet but have one on the TBR for sometime over the summer…

          • The most interesting thing that I can remember from my years of riding the train was the man who checked the tickets. He knew that most of the riders early in the morning and in the afternoon are regular passengers and needed no prompt to get of the train at their stop. So he walked up and down the train and said, “Hunky dory, next stop hunky dory…. He actually got written up in The Reader’s Digest.

            • Haha! Are you sure he wasn’t the conductor on the Polar Express? Sounds strange enough! I love travelling by train actually – don’t do nearly enough of it since becoming a driver.

            • I haven’t traveled by train for many a year. Our trains are nearly as expensive as flying. I live out in the middle of the Ocala National Forest and there is no public transportation out here. I panic when my car is on the fritz.

            • Yeah, it’s ridiculously expensive over here now too – used to be nationalised and subsidised when I was young, but no longer. I’m so near Glasgow transport of all kinds is close at hand, but I still always use the car.

            • Yes, I get that. It was expensive in Portugal, too. Did I say that already? We have had it good up till now here in the colonies.

  7. *laughs at FEF reading abridged books*

    I’m not sure why trains stations are just creepy. Actually, it could just be those pictures up there. Everything old like that is creepy; including Jane Austen. (Polar Express is an example of a goodly train, that’s not at all scary.)

    • But think how many I could get through! You should read the rest of the Dune books and abridge them for me…

      Especially underground trains – all the echoes and flickering lights and roaring trains… *shivers* Jane Austen is not creepy!!! And be careful – BUS might see that comment and then you’ll be in big trouble! (Ah, yes! The train that steals children in the night and takes them to the middle of nowhere, with wolves howling around and a ghost on the roof! Not scary at all!)

      • No! I’m struggling with the last one. It’s going to be ripped bad. Irulan isn’t even a character! Someone should get a flamethrower and end them all!!

        And people waiting around corners! JA is creepy! Her eyes are monster eyes. Isn’t that a bad insult right there? I imagine if you said that to a girl, they’d get rather cranky. Why? Does BUS like JA? Wolves aren’t scary! Remember, you want them back in Britain.

        • I’m kinda glad – I thought maybe it was just me! It needs ripping! Have you got to the sand trouts yet?

          It might be a pretty monster though – Nessie has beautiful eyes! No, but she’s very old! *glances over shoulder to check BUS isn’t listening* I do – but I wouldn’t necessarily send children out to play with them…though, on second thoughts, that might be fun! *cackles*

  8. Sounds like one for me. I can’t think why I haven’t read this one -Victorian and set on a railway – chastises self. Must do better!

    • You must look into these British Library Crime Classics – they’re releasing all kind of stuff that’s been out of print for decades. And though they’re only doing them in paper form, they usually come out for Kindle a while later from Poisoned Press.

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