Thursday, 12 May 2011

Blood on the Tracks: A History of Railway Crime in Britain (2010)

I think in many ways I often do fairly clumsy reviews: big, clunky things in ill-fitting cardigans, sellotaped glasses and orthopedic shoes, braying out how much I loved this book or loathed that one, how I found myself awestruck by this show or that, how I was disappointed by some difficult second album or some other long anticipated movie - each point made as it pops into my head, with no thought of later editing or creating a more pleasingly logical whole. There's little lightness of touch, really, compared to my very favourite blogs.

Which means (in segue of the century!) I'd be ideally suited to being a co-author of this book! It should be interesting - True Crime from the Victorian era onwards, with plenty of scope to combine a history of the railways in the UK with an analysis of the degree to which increased mobility, early flawed design ideas and mass population movement contributed to the growth of new types of criminal activity. Alternately, some form of fairly salacious blood and guts narrative, packed with vile murder and dreadful horror would at least have been entertaining.

Instead, the two authors (David and Alan from Peterborough, according to the fly-leaf) contrive to waste every such possibility for real interest. As dry in style as the most arid of academic journals and yet littered with sudden descents into brief laddish chattiness and inappropriate slang, the authors seem at times to be primarily train-spotting enthusiasts whose main purpose is to describe in tedious detail minor branch lines and forgotten engines instead of actual crime (and to print photo after photo of modern railway stations for no readily apparent reason).

This is particularly obvious in those sections where the criminal link to the railways is tenuous at best. One five page anecdote's sole link to crime on the railways is that police at one stage suspected that a murderer had dumped the body in a station locker, while another lengthy section deals with an offence in which - essentially unconnected with the crime - the perpetrator happened to travel on a train.

Each of these cases appears to have been allocated a space in the book on entirely random grounds (I imagine the two authors sifting through other, better written books, occasionally shouting out variants on 'there's a murder in here on a tram - is that close enough?) with an equally random emphasis, so that a fascinatingly mysterious murder gets two quick paragraphs and some mundane and dull theft drags on for page after page of sheer speculation, unconnected photos and oddly right wing declarations about the Police, government and anyone else in a position of authority.

With its combination of uneven tone, unreferenced claims, original research disguised as reporting and love of all things authoritarian, this book reads like someone has filtered an over-long Wikipedia article though a DailyMailathon and then randomly jumbled up the paragraphs.

Actually, it's not as well done as that...

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