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by Janet Dawson
Perseverance Press, September 2013
232 pages
ISBN: 1564745309

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In the mystery genre, there is probably no better setting for a "locked room whodunit" than a passenger train. In addition to the rich history of the subgenre (most notably by Agatha Christie), the combination of complete strangers (or those who claim to be strangers) in a moving vehicle going across the countryside and the locked-in nature of a train creates more pure isolation than any country manor ever could. With that in mind, author Janet Dawson presents us with DEATH RIDES THE ZEPHYR, a locked-train mystery that is engaging enough, one supposes, but one that shorts the murder mystery in order to flesh out the characters and show off the author's research.

Jill McLeod, is a Zephyrette, a hostess of sorts, on the famous California Zephyr and is still trying to get over the death of her fiancé in the Korean conflict. When she boards the eastbound Zephyr during the Christmas season, she must navigate a wide array of passengers ranging from the lecherous married man to a child riding the train alone to the Berkeley professor whose ex-wife just happens to be on the train as well. Dawson spends a lot of time setting up all these characters, yet none of them ever seem quite real, but rather more like vague representatives of characters that we have already seen dozens of times before. The novel also heavily uses the author's research in a rather clumsy way that is distracting and artificial. While the volume of research on the real California Zephyr is interesting and helps build authenticity in the narrative, the cold war aspects of the novel are addressed so heavy-handedly that the theme becomes distracting. For instance, there are references early in the book that seem so alien that the reader knows they will be called back later in the novel; and unlike the Zephyr research, these read more like a transcript of a television documentary than a natural and necessary part of the narrative. The related dialogue from the characters is so turgid that it cannot pass for normal social conversation and reeks of artificiality.

Then there is the murder mystery itself. The plot itself is fairly well constructed with mysterious incidents preceding the murder, but when a fairly short locked-room mystery does not get to the murder until nearly three-quarters of the way through the book, there is a problem; especially when the character development is unlikely to be mistaken for Elizabeth George or P. D. James. In a sense, the pleasure of the book hinges more on one's love for California trains more than on any satisfaction derived from the mystery itself.

DEATH RIDES THE ZEPHYR is not offensively bad; it's simply bland and not very good. Fans of a gentle, well-constructed tale with mystery elements may well find it to be a benign and enjoyable enough tale. However, coming after Dawson's last standalone novel, WHAT YOU WISH FOR (which had great character development and a compelling mystery), it is a true disappointment.

§ Ben Neal is a librarian who likes to fancy himself an amateur writer, humorist, detective, and coffee connoisseur in his spare time. He can be reached at beneneal@indiana.edu.

Reviewed by Ben Neal, September 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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