Last year was tough – not as difficult as 2020 but, to say the least, something of a drag. I could probably count the exciting events that happened to me on one hand, and one of those fingers would have to be saved for my buddy JJ. On March 30, he posted a review of a book by two authors I’d never heard of: M.G. (Mara) Leonard and Sam Sedgman. The book was Murder on the Safari Star, and it turned out to be the third in a series of mysteries called Adventures on Trains.
Now I’ve always been plagued by OCD, and I have to do things in order. I bought all three books in the series (JJ’s review had been that good!) and read them one after the other. And that is how I fell in love with Harrison “Hal” Beck, young artist and budding detective, his charming Uncle, travel journalist Nathaniel Bradshaw, and their creators: Ms. Leonard, Mr. Sedgman, and illustrator extraordinaire Elisa Paganelli, whose fabulous drawings represent the Hal’s own artwork and sometimes provide a valuable clue.
During the Golden Age of Detection, an author could get away with penning title after title, and as long as the mystery was good, their series characters – the Great Detective, possibly a Watson, maybe a Police Inspector with whom the GD has a dodgy relationship, maybe a valet or a dotty Aunt Prunella – could live in a sort of stasis. No one aged, no one changed, no one died. It was part of the “mystery as comfort food” angle: you could always count on M. Poirot or Dr. Fell or Inspector Alleyn to get their man. As long as the mystery was good, it didn’t matter that Miss Marple, in her 60’s in 1928, was still going strong well into her hundreds – so long as the mystery was good. Oh, sure, Alleyn met his future wife during a case. Heck, Nigel Strangeways met a wife, married her, lost her and met another; it scarcely aged the guy, although I believe he moved further afield from classic detection and more into espionage.
Modern authors have set a more challenging task for themselves in this character-rich era. Their central characters grow older and evolve as people. They are sometimes deeply affected by the cases they solve, and it colors the way they approach future endeavors. Fans of these authors return not just for the mysteries but to see how their beloved series characters are faring. That noble British inspector has gotten over the murder of his new love and taken on a different partner. The Scandinavian policeman is now living with his divorced daughter and her sullen boy (who had been kidnapped by his drug-dealing pa then rescued by Morfar,) joined AA, and is dating the sister of his former neighbor/best friend who was running a child sex den for Nazis in his basement until the policeman caught him (but got shot in the chest for his troubles).
The best series for young people do not rest on their laurels either. They expand their world-building and let their characters grow and change. And since Adventures on Trains is, to my mind, the best mystery series out there for young people (and the young person in all of us), it follows that Hal Beck and his Uncle Nat will grow and change. And that is exactly what happens in the fourth book, Danger at Dead Man’s Pass. Hal Beck has moved from a reluctant 11-year old forced to travel with his railway journalist uncle on a steam train to a gung-ho traveler and budding train expert himself who has discovered Amtrak in America and a fabled old railroad in South Africa. He has also come face to face with a jewel thief, a kidnapper, and a murderer. This time, however, it’s different – this time, it’s personal.
I’m going to tell you a little bit about that, but I’m going to save the best stuff for you to discover. First of all, the authors acknowledge that a pre-teen who solves three international crimes is not going to remain anonymous for long. Thus, for the first time, Hal is approached for help: an old friend of his uncle, who happens to be a German baron, has asked the duo to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his brother-in-law. Alexander Kratzenstein, currently the head of his family’s railway construction business, was found dead outside his old family home at the foot of the Harz mountains in Germany, at a spot known as Dead Man’s Pass. The cause of death has been ruled a heart attack, and yet why did Alexander die with a look of terror on his face?
This is the second book in a row that I have read containing a family curse, and I have to admit that it is the more satisfying in many aspects, not least in the way that the curse is introduced, developed, and resolved. It is the first time that Hal has to embark on a case under cover, due to the fame that has preceded him as “the railway detective boy.” It adds a level of tension to a situation that is already fraught, due to the complex relationships within the large Kratzenstein family and the supernatural element hanging over all of them.
Most of the story takes place at the grand old Schloss Kratzenstein, and the idea of Hal landing in the middle of “country house family mystery” territory is another first. The castle is really a character in itself (Paganelli includes a fabulous map of the house), placed in an area steeped in real-life history (be sure and read the authors’ notes at the end of the book) and filled with wonderful surprises. This may prompt you to ask, however, about the trains. This is, after all another Adventure on Trains, right? Without giving anything away, Danger at Dead Man’s Pass has trains, trains, and more trains to delight and fascinate us. I offer one example, which occurs at a family dinner when sixteen people sit down in the grand banquet hall to their first meal of Schweinshaxe (pig knuckle and potato dumpling), and Hal receives a welcome distraction from the familial tension:
“A high-pitched toot-toot sounded, and a model train made its entrance through a hole in the wall above the door. It circumnavigated the room on a set of rails built on the architrave, caring and its trucks a selection of mustards, seasonings and sauces; a dish of butter sat in a hopper at the back. The diners looked up, following its journey to a junction, where is paused as the section of the track on which it sat was lowered down on wires, slotting into a groove in the table.”
The mystery itself is wonderful and different. You may or may not latch your suspicions early on in the correct direction, but you will be surprised as to what it all means. The mystery surrounding the curse is even better. Best of all is the evolution of Hal’s relationship with his uncle which, if the intriguing final page is any indication, is about to expand the series’ world in new directions.
Wherever these trains go, I will be on board! I am thrilled that there are two more books due this year, one set in Australia and the other in the Arctic Circle (where I believe the authors actually traveled for the purposes of writing their book. Gosh, what a job!) If you haven’t tried Adventures on Trains, I urge you to start at the beginning; you will be well rewarded. I, for one, hope that I will get many more chances to grow up with Hal Beck!