After a career in TV production Helen Bettinson recently ditched a long commute around the M25 in order to concentrate on reading, and perhaps even writing, crime fiction.
A century has passed since the outbreak of the First World War, yet our hunger for its horrors is undimmed. And there is no shortage of authors willing to feed our demand. The trick, then, is to find an original way into this familiar territory, by going underground, as Sebastian Faulkes did with Birdsong, or up onto narrow gauge rails, as has Andrew Martin in The Somme Stations.
Of course, Jim Stringer is much more than a literary device to lead us to the Western Front, having already appeared in six best-selling books. But whether the reader comes to this novel a Stringer fan of long standing or not, Martin’s evocation of the war experience is both moving and exciting.
In October 1916 a badly injured Jim is about to be arrested for the murders of two men in his company. The narrative then scrolls back to the autumn of 1914 and the enlistment of Railway Detective Sergeant Stringer in the Railway Pals, a battalion drawn from the ranks of engine drivers, footplate men, ticket collectors, porters and plate-layers of the North Eastern Railway. But before this motley band of brothers can be shipped to France they are sent for training in the Humber estuary. Against this bleak backdrop a tragedy occurs that not only shakes the company, but shapes its fate in the months to come.
The second half of the book shifts to the surreal world of the Western Front – to the booming ‘hate’ of the trenches, the bars of bombed-out Albert, and the ever-expanding narrow gauge network that consumes Jim’s company. This is war, with its blood, filth, adrenalin and steam, where death may come at any moment, and from any direction. As the Somme offensive unfolds, Jim’s suspicions that the enemy lies within their own ranks are borne out by events.
This is a fascinating tale, expertly told. Martin succeeds in laying the tracks of suspicion in the reader’s mind as expertly as the Butler twins lay their narrow-gauge tracks up to the frontline. The cast of characters is well drawn and the claustrophobia of men bound together for better or worse is compellingly realised. The next instalment in the Stringer series will be eagerly awaited by all who read The Somme Stations.
Read our interview with Andrew here.