In this latest novel by Benjamin Stevenson, readers are presented with a mystery writers’ festival. One of the attendees is Ernest Cunningham, who is the narrator of all that happens – which is a great deal. Also attending the festival are a number of mystery writers, each of whom specialises in a particular type of crime. Guest of honour is the famous globally bestselling author, Henry McTavish, who is respected, envied and hated by most of his contemporaries. Added to the group are some publishers who represent, or would like to represent, some of the writers.
The festival takes place on that marvellous train, the Ghan, as it travels almost 3000 kilometres from Darwin to Adelaide via Alice Springs. This gives Stevenson the opportunity to expound on the wonderful experience of travelling in style through the centre of Australia, which he does rather well. The spectacular scenery is depicted and the pleasures of luxury dining humorously expounded: ‘crocodile which tasted like chicken and kangaroo which tasted like beef’.
And when the inevitable murder takes place, it conveniently puts all the suspects in a confined area from which there is small chance of escape or external interference. Most of these suspects are mystery writers skilled in the art of detection and so become a loose group of detectives.
In addition, the plot is replete with a good helping of red herrings and a subplot about the narrator’s turbulent relationship with his travelling companion, a woman with whom he is in love.
But Stevenson has much more in store for the reader. He gets his narrator, Cunningham, to explain the “unwritten rules” good mystery writers must follow in writing stories such as the one now being read. This narrator explains early on: ‘The rap sheet for the crimes committed in this book amounts to murder, rape, stealing, trespassing, evidence tampering, conspiracy, blackmail, smoking on public transport, headbutting (I guess the technical term is assault), burglary (yes, this is different to stealing) and improper use of adverbs.’
From time to time throughout the novel, there is this slightly tongue-in-cheek self-referential commentary, as when Cunningham explains that he can’t be a murder suspect because he is the narrator.
This is done in a light-hearted fashion, intended to be amusing. It is overdone, though, particularly when the reader is presented more than once with a list of the names of possible murder suspects, along with the number of times each has been referred to. Obviously, the frequency with which someone is mentioned by name has some significance, but to be reminded by page 113 that someone has been mentioned 70 times and someone else 56 times and so on did nothing for me other than irritate.
Another effect of this meta-commentary is there is no way you can read this story without becoming ensnared in a detection competition with the narrator. (For the record, this reviewer went nowhere near unravelling all the clues before the end, where all the loose bits are neatly tidied up with the bonus of an extra surprise or two.) No doubt many readers devour stories of this kind for the pleasure of exercising their deductive skills. But for those who just want to go with the flow, the commentary is a distraction.
Overall, this is a good mystery yarn spoilt for me by the narrator’s commentary. But I am ready to acknowledge that readers may differ in their opinion; Stevenson’s earlier novel in this series, which featured the same type of commentary – Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone – was very popular.
Everyone on this Train is a Suspect, Benjamin Stevenson
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication: 17 October 2023