Andrew Martin The Necropolis Railway Reviewed by Rick Kleffel

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The Necropolis Railway

Andrew Martin

Faber and Faber

UK Trade Paperback Reprint

ISBN 0-571-20991-2

Publication Date: 07-03-2003

231 Pages; £6.99

Date Reviewed: 10-05-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



General Fiction, Mystery

News 09-27-04

As a boy, I too was enthused by trains, as were both my sons. These huge, powerful yet somehow helpless steel monsters clearly care little about who they crush and how. But they are helpless, aren't they? Unable to leave the rails, trapped forever in the grid with which we ensnare them. It's that combination of brute force and powerlessness that appeals to boys and men so much. It's a mirror of our souls, our minds, our lives. Blustering about but beyond our own control. Following a path from which we cannot deviate without losing our very selves. It's so hard to let go, so easy to stay on track.

Andrew Martin knows quite a bit about men, boys and trains, knowledge he deploys with a bloody good kind of blustering power in 'The Necroplis Railway'. Jim Stringer is a country boy who dreams of being an engineer. He reads The Railway Magazine religiously, and is a porter in a country train station. A chance encounter with a powerful man gives him a ticket to work in London, in the Waterloo train yards. Sure, he'll have to start at the bottom, but with dedication and drive, he may be able, one day, to be an engineer on the fastest trains in the world. Assuming he can survive that long.

It's not just the work itself that's dangerous. Jim finds himself on the shunned run, the Necropolis railway, a one-way trip to the graveyards. His co-workers hate him. His predecessor has gone missing presumed dead. And though he's left home and taken on the duties of a man, he's quite unworldly. But he'll have to come up to speed pretty fast, unless he wants to become a passenger on the death train.

Set in the teeming turbulence of 1903 London, 'The Necropolis Railway' creates an authentic ambience of clattering dread. Jim Stringer arrives in the city without a clue of how to live or what's going on around him. He's an eager boy through and through, infatuated with the minutia of trains but with no understanding of the motivations of the corrupt adults who surround him. But he's authentically plucky and his observations of the events around him are crystal clear even if he has no understanding of what he's seeing. Martin makes the most of his naïve narrator, producing an effect that's lots of fun for the reader. Stringer describes events to the reader that the reader clearly understands even if the narrator does not.

But there are lots of things readers won't be familiar with, and those are the things which Stringer loves best. That would be turn-of-the-twentieth century trains and railways. Martin has done the research and led the life. His prose re-creation of them is admirably dense. He knows how many bricks are in the tunnels and he knows how to stoke fire. More importantly, he knows how not to stoke a fire and has Stringer do it the wrong way, in growing frustration. Stringer's second-hand knowledge of trains proves to be most fallible, and his lack of knowledge about the motivations of those around him proves to be dangerous. There's a mystery afoot, and Stringer will have to solve it if he's to survive.

Martin gets more than the mechanics right in this novel. He nails the people and does so from the point of view of a callow newcomer. Stringer is wrong about almost everyone he meets, and Martin plays the dual viewpoint -- Stringer's and the reader's -- like a virtuoso, stoking the fires of plot and character to pump up the terror and keep his know-nothing protagonist slowly -- but not too slowly -- growing up.

The ambience of the London train yards is quite forbidding, and at times seems almost alien and unknowable. For those who think there is no solution in sight, be assured there is -- but it comes quicker and with more twists than you're likely to anticipate. 'The Necropolis Railway' is a clanking, clacking thriller about growing up and getting off the rails. Yes, there's always a new set of rails, and whether we escape those is questionable. But knowing they're there is half the battle.