Death in the Tunnel: Miles Burton (1936)

“This case of yours seems to get more and more involved, the further you go.”

In Miles Burton’s 1936 novel, Death in the Tunnel, Sir Wilfred Saxonby travels home by the 5 pm. train from London’s Cannon Street to his home in Stourford. He pays the guard a pound to make sure that he is alone in his first class compartment. On the journey home, as the train enters the Blackdown Tunnel, the train driver applies the brakes after seeing a red light swinging above the tracks, but then the train picks up speed when the light changes to green. About that time, the guard stops to speak to Saxonby and finds that his passenger has been shot through the heart.

Death in the tunnel

Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard takes over the case from the local constabulary, and initially Saxonby’s death appears to be a clear cut case of suicide as a gun bearing Saxonby’s monogram is found at his feet. But there are a few aspects of the case that trouble Arnold. Where is Saxonby’s train ticket? And what about that mysterious light in the tunnel?  There were twenty-four additional passengers in the first class compartments (with the doors locked between the first and third class sections in case the riff-raff tries to crash in), and what of the mysterious, elderly twenty-fifth passenger? Although all the evidence points towards suicide, Arnold has this nagging feeling about some aspects of the case which don’t quite add up, and as he says, “Details like that have a way of mattering.”

As for Saxonby, although he “was a man of temperate, not to say frugal habits,” he was also intolerant, “respected rather than liked,” and as a magistrate may have made a number of deadly enemies. …

Death in the Tunnel is an intriguing book from the Golden Age of Detective fiction and comes recommended especially for fans of ‘train crime.’ There’s no CSI–just painstaking, logical police work, and in this book, the troubling aspects of the case are easy to grasp. Arnold has to follow the traces of the case that don’t add up, and he consults his friend, the wealthy amateur sleuth Merrion for his opinion. The two men work together and apply their various theories to the possible suicide or hypothetical murder of Saxonby.

Merrion laughed. “What I like about this case is the delicate balance of evidence,” he replied. “To begin with, there is at least as much evidence in support of the theory of suicide as there is against it.”

The relationship between Merrion and Arnold is subtly portrayed. There’s no obsequiousness on the part of Arnold, and no condescending revelations from Merrion. They see each other as peers and so treat each other accordingly with mutual respect–often dining while they discuss the case, presenting various theories and seeing how those theories hold against the clues. Even though they certainly don’t always agree, they make a good team–Merrion, for example, believes that the identification of Saxonby’s wallet is central to the case while Arnold thinks this is a trivial detail.  This case is fascinating for as Arnold pursues one clue after another, and seems to be perhaps closer to solving the mystery of Saxonby’s death, instead of narrowing down suspects and theories, the case widens.  All of this is quite clear logically although I’ll admit that I did get confused when it came to the forger section.

British Library Crime Classics has another title from Miles Burton (real name Cecil John Street, 1884-1965) due out in North America shortly: The Secret of High Eldersham. This is another author whose books are almost entirely out of print, so it’s marvellous to see a publisher bringing Burton back to be read and enjoyed all over again

Review copy

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9 Comments

Filed under Burton Miles, Fiction

9 responses to “Death in the Tunnel: Miles Burton (1936)

  1. The title of this book makes me want to read it.

    I love the term “train crime”. I wonder how many real life murders have actually occurred on trains.

  2. Sign of the times that the title made me think of the TV series called “The Tunnel” based on the Scandinavian “The Bridge” in which dismembered corpses are found in the Channel tunnel. It was so much more gentlemanly in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

  3. Oh, I think you might have sold me on this one, Guy. There’s something very appealing about stories set on trains. I’ll add it to the wishlist.

    • Yes I have a thing about trains too. One of the good aspects of this book is that the logic used to solve the crime is easy to follow (in other words, we would have proceeded along the same path)–although as I said, I got lost when it came to the forgery section and had to reread parts.

  4. Before I’ve read Murder on the Orient Express, i would have said I love books set on trains but now I’m not so sure. But this one might be very different. It does sound good.

  5. Oh yes I do like ‘train crime’ too and as I’ve said before it doesn’t take a lot to make me want to acquire this series!

  6. It does sound rather good. I particularly liked the description of the relationship between the professional and amateur detective, which sounds better realised than usual. Was this part of a series or was it a one-off?

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