Book Review: On Track For Murder by Stephen Childs

On Track for Murder  is Stephen Childs' debut novel. It is set in 1889 and, as the title and elegant book cover suggest, is a mystery with a railway connection.

Eighteen year old Abigail Sergeant and her younger brother, Bertrand, disembark from a steamship in Fremantle, Western Australia, looking forward to being reunited with their father and starting a new life.

Mr. Sergeant, a railway engineer, sent out from England years before, has overseen the connection of the railway between Perth and the port city of Albany, on the south-east coast.

While joyfully welcomed by their father, Abigail and Bertrand's  reunion with their step-mother, Frances, is not so happy. A mutual dislike between Abigail and Frances causes unrest in the home, but Abigail is determined to let nothing threaten her and Bertrand's pleasure at being with their father and the security of living as a family once more.
Abigail's hopes of a happy family life are shattered when her father is murdered and Bertrand is found holding the murder weapon. He is arrested, but Abigail knows Bertrand is  innocent. She just needs time to contact a witness. Granted five days by the Detective Inspector in charge of the case, Abigail sets off for Albany, accompanied by Constable Dunning, a policeman she met previously at the Fremantle docks.

Abigail is an unconventional eighteen year old. She finds steam engines and all things mechanical interesting. An interest encouraged by her father and frowned upon by her step-mother, who thinks such interests unnatural in a female. A well-bred young lady should be focusing on marriage and domestic affairs.

Abigail's mechanical knowledge plays a large part in the story and adds credibility to the way she extricates herself from a number of difficult situations. She is also very protective of her brother, who finds it hard to communicate and interact with people, and faced life in an institution had they remained in England. When the investigation threatens to overwhelm her and she is niggled by self-doubt, thoughts of Bertrand unjustly accused makes her more determined to bring the real culprit to justice.

Constable Dunning is also unusual for his time. He readily accepts Abigail's fascination with trains and steam engines and sees her as a capable partner in the task they have been assigned. A little awkward around Abigail at first, he is cool-headed and methodical in his approach to the investigation, his pencil stub and notebook never faraway. 

The relationship between Abigail and Constable Dunning is sweetly developed. Abigail's preconceived view that her ideal mate would be someone sharing her mechanical interests is completely overthrown when she realises that Constable Dunning also has an enquiring mind and is not the weakling she first thought. There are some lovely moments and humourous exchanges between the two as their feelings for each other grow.

Packed with drama from the first chapter, it is easy to be swept along with Abigail and Constable Dunning in their quest to prove Bertrand is innocent. Kidnapping, arson and attempted murder bring them into contact with a thuggish seaman, petty criminals and a religious fanatic before the case is solved. Though I had my suspicions who the murderer was, there are a number of suspects with equally strong motives just to complicate matters and add an element of doubt. A plot twist at the end is a clever distraction before the murderer is finally revealed.

On Track for Murder is a fast-paced, well-written historical mystery with a touch of romance. Victorian era views and prejudices, plausible plot lines, credible outcomes, believable protagonists, all combine to make this a very entertaining read.  I enjoyed this novel and look forward to more from Stephen Childs.

Note: I received a free copy of this novel from Authoright in exchange for an unbiased and honest review.

On Track for Murder  is published by Clink Street Publishing and is available September 1, 2015, from The Book Depository, Amazon US and other book sellers.

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