Murder, mystery and wit in the Australian wilds

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

EVERYONE ON THIS TRAIN IS A SUSPECT. By Benjamin Stevenson. Mariner Books. 336 pages. $30.

Benjamin Stevenson has a lot of nerve. It’s not every writer who would be so bold as to produce a modern spin on Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie’s masterpiece starring the inimitable Hercule Poirot in a classic locked-room mystery aboard a train. And it’s not every writer who, having been so bold, would make a great success of it.

But then Stevenson is not your ordinary author. He has a second career as a successful stand-up comic, and he puts his sense of humor to good use in his new book Everyone on This Train Is a Suspect.

You may know Stevenson, an Australian writer, because of his 2022 novel, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, an international bestseller, soon to be an HBO series.

The first-person narrator of that book and this one, its sequel, is Ernest Cunningham. Cunningham reminds those who read the first book and informs those who did not that he   used to write books about how to write mysteries, drawing on the wisdom of Christie and other authors from the Golden Age of murder mysteries.

Don’t worry if you didn’t read the first Ernest Cunningham book. I didn’t, but it’s now high on my must-read list. Cunningham, of course, is aware of the challenges of writing sequels and carefully tells us just what we need to know about the time when a family reunion turned deadly and, amid all the subsequent media attention, he decided to tell the story in a memoir of sorts.

Now Cunningham has a hefty advance to write a second book, but he’s having a rough time getting started. For his first book, he essentially just told readers what happened in real life. For this second book, he’s supposed to use his imagination and creativity.

Fortunately, he’s been invited to a writers’ convention held aboard the Ghan, a train that takes tourists between Darwin on Australia’s northern coast and Adelaide on the southern coast, traveling through the heart of the desert. He and his girlfriend, Juliette, hope that traveling with successful authors will help get him started on his novel.

What happens instead is that, once again, real life (and real death) provides the story.

Early in the train journey, one of the featured writers is murdered. The train’s stops for sightseeing are canceled. Cunningham and the other writers think they ought to be able to figure out the identity of the killer. They also realize that the same skills that help them solve murder mysteries could enable any one of them to be a crafty murderer. Cunningham figures the only way to remove himself as a suspect is to find the real killer.

So Stevenson writes a mystery novel that Cunningham presents as a true story, one that has ended before he writes the book. That metafiction approach makes it possible for Stevenson to have Cunningham step back frequently from the action and mystery and talk with his readers about the rules of writing classic mysteries, poking a little fun at them even as he admires them. As his character talks about the rules and offers hints about how to solve the mystery, Stevenson’s background as a comedian is evident in Cunningham’s dry humor. There’s also humor in the way Cunningham sometimes blunders, draws the wrong conclusions and puts himself in danger. He’s certainly no Poirot.

The asides about the rules of mystery writers, the clues, the humor – in the hands of a lesser writer, this approach might become too gimmicky and annoying. Stevenson gets it just right. Everyone on This Train Is a Suspect is an outstanding mystery novel, complete with twists, turns and surprises. And yes, it follows the rules, even as it makes us laugh.

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