Death in the Tunnel: A British Library Crime Classic

Death in the Tunnel: A British Library Crime Classic

On a dark November evening, Sir Wilfred Saxonby is travelling alone in the 5 o’clock train from Cannon Street, in a locked compartment. The train slows and stops inside a ...

About The Author

Miles Burton

MILES BURTON was a pseudonym of Cecil Street (1884 –1964), a British soldier who became a prolific novelist in the ...

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The 5.0 p.m. train from Cannon Street runs fast as far as Stourford, where it is due at 6.7. On Thursday, November 14th, it was, as usual, fairly full, but not uncomfortably so. It was a fine evening, dark, but with no suggestion of fog. Drawn by a powerful locomotive of the Lord Nelson type, the train kept well up to schedule time. In fact it ran through Blackdown station at 5.29, two minutes earlier than it was timed to do.

Beyond the station is Blackdown Tunnel, two and a half miles long. The gradient through the tunnel is fairly severe, and the speed of the train slackened slightly as it entered it. Still, it must have been travelling at fully fifty miles an hour. Suddenly, about half-way through the tunnel, the brakes were violently applied. So violently that William Turner, the guard, was nearly thrown off his seat in the rear van.

His first thought was that the communication cord had been pulled. But on glancing at the vacuum brake apparatus in his van he saw this had not been the case. He left the van, and started along the corridor towards the front of the train, looking into each compartment as he passed. Nearly every seat in the long row of thirds was occupied, but none of the passengers seemed in any way concerned by the slowing up of the train, which was now rapidly coming to a stop.

Turner unlocked the door leading to the first-class compartments. Here, too, all was well. The firsts were not so densely populated as the thirds, but they contained a fair sprinkling of passengers, mostly reading their evening papers. As Turner passed up the corridor, he heard a whistle from the engine. The train, which had slowed down nearly to walking pace, began once more to gather way. Still, it was curious. Turner continued on his way, expecting to meet his assistant from the front end of the train, who might be able to tell him what had been the matter.

He reached the last of the first-class compartments, a smoker, and looked in. Yes, there was the old chap who had given him a quid to keep him a compartment to himself. The application of the brakes had not disturbed him. He had dozed off, with his glasses on his nose, and his paper on his knees. Some big toff, no doubt. Turner remembered having seen him on the line before.

The guard unlocked a second door, separating the firsts in the centre of the train from another row of thirds, in front of them. Just beyond it, he met his assistant, who had walked down the train from the front van. “What’s up, Ted?” he asked. “Everything O.K. my end,” replied the other. “I thought Bert must have run over somebody, or something. But he’s pushing her along again now,  so it can’t  have been    that.

Perhaps he dropped a sixpence off the engine, and wanted to go back and look for it.”

They exchanged a few more words, then each returned to his own van. Two or three minutes had been lost on schedule by the slowing down and gathering speed again. But this lost time was made good without difficulty. As the train approached Stourford, Turner noticed that the hands of his watch were barely past six o’clock. They would be well on time. Once more he walked up the train, until he reached the first-class compartment occupied by the big toff, as he mentally styled him. The old gentleman was still asleep, and in the same position, as though he had not stirred since Blackdown Tunnel. Turner unlocked the door between the compartment and the corridor, and slid it back. “Just running into Stourford, sir!” he said loudly but respectfully.

The passenger did not move. So utterly still was he that Turner felt a sudden misgiving. He entered the compart- ment and laid his hand on the old gentleman’s shoulder. This having no effect, he shook him gently. To his horror, the passenger swayed, and appeared to lose his balance. He fell sideways, and subsided uneasily across the arm-rest. Turner, who had been through a course of first-aid, felt his pulse, but could detect no beating. He loosened his collar, and set him in an easier position.

By this time the train was running into the station. Turner went back to the corridor, which in this particular coach was on the left-hand side, opened the window, and put his head out. The station-master was standing on the platform. As the train drew slowly past him, Turner spoke. “I’d like a word with you, Mr. Cutbush,” he said quietly.

The station-master opened the door, and swung himself on to the train. “What is it?” he asked.

“There’s a passenger in here I don’t like the look of,” replied Turner. “He was all right when we left Cannon Street, but he’s pretty dicky now, I’m afraid.”

The station-master entered the compartment. “Hallo, it’s Sir Wilfred Saxonby, from Helverden!” he exclaimed. “He went up by the 9.50 this morning, and his car is in the yard now to meet him. Whatever can be the matter with him, I wonder?” As he spoke, the station-master unbuttoned the passenger’s overcoat, and opened it out. He started back in horror. On the breast of the dark grey suit beneath it was a patch of wet blood.

Mr. Cutbush was fully equal to the emergency. He wasted no more time in fruitless examination of the body. “Slip out and send a couple of chaps for the stretcher, and then come back here and help get him into the waiting-room. We’ll take this coach off here, and I’ll take the names and addresses of the passengers in it. And when you’ve got Sir Wilfred into the waiting-room, slip into the booking- office and tell the clerk to ring up Dr. Frant.”

Turner carried out his instructions to the letter. The body was removed from the train, and carried into the waiting- room, at the door of which a porter took up his post to keep out the inquisitive. The booking clerk was instructed to ring up Dr. Frant. Then Turner walked along the platform to the engine. “We’re going to take off a first-class coach here, Bert,” he said.

“All right,” replied the engine-driver. “What’s up? Hot box, or something?”

“No. The coach is all right, but there’s a toff in it who must have committed suicide. Mr. Cutbush knows him. Sir Wilfred Somebody. He said we were to take the coach off. Thinks the police will want to have a look at it, I expect. By the way, what was wrong with you to pull up in the tunnel like that?” “There wasn’t anything wrong with me. Chap working on the line showed a red light. Then, just as I got to  him,

he turned it to green. So I came on.”

“Chap working on the line!” Turner exclaimed. “There’s nothing in the notices about any chaps working in Black- down Tunnel!”

“I know that. But there was them blinking lights. You ask Charlie. He saw them, just the same as I did.”

The fireman, who was leaning out of the cab, nodded. “Yes, I saw them,” he said. “Chap was swinging them back- wards and forwards, low down, just clear of the rails.”

“Well, I’ll have to put it in my report, I suppose,” said Turner. “I’ll get along now and see to the uncoupling of that coach.”

The coach was removed and shunted into a siding, where all the windows were closed and the doors locked. The train continued on its journey. At twenty minutes past six, Dr. Frant arrived at the station, where he was shown into the waiting-room by Mr. Cutbush.

A very brief inspection served to show that Sir Wilfred Saxonby was dead. “Not very long, hardly an hour, I should imagine,” said the doctor. “Now, let’s see if we can find out what he died of. Just help me to undo his coat and waistcoat, and we’ll see where that blood came from.”

The cause of death was soon apparent. Upon Sir Wilfred’s chest being bared, a small wound, surrounded with blood, was found in the region of the heart. A similar wound, but a trifle larger, was found in the back. The two wounds were level, that is to say that had the body been in an upright position, they would have been the same height above the ground. “H’m!” said the doctor. “Pierced clean through the heart.

By a bullet, I should say, though it might have been a very fine stiletto. Let’s have a look at his overcoat.”

Even in the not very powerful light of the waiting-room, the doctor found what he was looking for. “Here you are!” he exclaimed. “There’s a very small hole, corresponding with the position of the wound. And round it you can see some black specks, where the cloth has been burnt. Those specks were made by burning grains of powder. Sir Wilfred was shot with a pistol of some kind, probably a very small automatic, fired at very short range. Has the compartment in which he was found been searched?”

The station-master shook his head. “I’m a servant of the railway company, doctor, not a policeman,” he replied. “Every man to his trade, say I.”

“Well, perhaps you’re right,” said Dr. Frant. “The police will want to look into this, and they’ll be glad to find things undisturbed. It’s a bad job, altogether. You realise, I suppose, that this wound could have been self-inflicted?”

Mr. Cutbush nodded. “Sir Wilfred was alone in the compartment, so the guard informs me,” he said.

“Well, the best thing you can do is to get in touch with the police at once. I’ll make arrangements for the body to be taken to the mortuary. There’s nothing more I can do here, I’m afraid.”

It was not long before the police, in the person of Inspector Marden, of the local constabulary, arrived on the scene. As the result of Marden’s investigations, it was decided to call in the help of Scotland Yard. Not that there was much doubt as to what had happened, but it was just as well to make sure.

Reviews of

Death in the Tunnel: A British Library Crime Classic

“This offering in the British Library Crime Classics series (which reissues out-of-print mysteries from the Golden Age of crime fiction, between WWI and WWII) is part of a popular subgenre of the time, called the “railway murder mystery.” The train setting (think Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, 1934, published two years before this one) was ideal for encasing a wide variety of people in one place, giving them myriad chances for meetings and murder. Death in the Tunnel is a variant of the locked-room mystery. A train comes to a screeching halt in the middle of a two-and-a-half-mile-long tunnel. The body of Sir Willfred Saxonby is discovered shot to death afterward, in a locked first-class compartment. All the evidence points to suicide, but, as a Scotland Yard inspector, aided by his friend, a brilliant amateur sleuth, investigates, what seem to be trifles in timing and coincidence point to murder. Who knew railroad timetables and tunnel gradients could make for so much suspense?”