x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Somme Stations: Story never gets on track

This whodunnit by Ander Martin delivers well-drawn settings and people, but ultimately fails to cohere into a satisfying plot.

The Somme Stations, Andrew Martin, Faber and Faber, Dh48
The Somme Stations, Andrew Martin, Faber and Faber, Dh48

Andrew Martin loves the railways. You can see it in each rivet-by-rivet description of a locomotive, the personification of cold iron that seems a character in itself.

The protagonist Jim Stringer, by contrast, is humble, seldom-spoken and in many ways reluctant to be part of the action at all. A railway detective, he joins a new military unit formed in the early moments of the First World War to transport - by rail, of course - supplies through the war zone. But although the mystery element is introduced in the first few paragraphs, a foreshadowing of murder and even treason, the next 50 pages take the story only to a seaside training ground.

Odd bits of writing conceit, such as the inclusion of at least one (it seems like) parenthetical thought on each page, are distracting as well. The whodunit does eventually take shape, forged in the crucible of barbed-wire battlefields. And the characters, from rough-hewn farmboys to would-be philosophers, all thrust to the front for various reasons, speak naturally and act believably. Unfortunately, despite the well-drawn settings and people, the story really never gets on track.