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…

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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)