BENJAMIN STEVENSON Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect. Reviewed by Michael Jongen
Benjamin Stevenson’s sharp eye and love of the crime genre are on display in this follow-up to Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone.
After the success of his last novel Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, Benjamin Stevenson has returned with a sequel of sorts. His protagonist Ernest Cunningham has written a bestselling true crime memoir on the serial killer the Black Tongue. As a result he is invited to the Australian Mystery Writers’ Festival 50th Anniversary Program, which will take place on the Ghan, a famous luxury train running from Darwin to Adelaide.
As the assembled writers, festival guests and book industry figures board the Ghan in Darwin, we learn that Ernest has writer’s block and is boarding with his partner Juliette, whom he met when his family stayed in her hotel. Juliette has also written a book about the same events.
We didn’t have the most romantic of starts, dead bodies aside. Our meet cute was me, a woefully underprepared city driver trying to get to a ski resort, and her, pulling over to help in the slush and mud. It turns out that she owned that very resort, and, even though I wound up having a hand in destroying it, we managed to get on quite well through the media frenzy that followed. Most people who read my first book are surprised we’re dating. ‘I was so sure she was the killer!’ they say. I think she’s quite proud of that.
The six assembled authors each represent a different type of mystery writer and are regarded as the crème de la crème of their profession – except for Ernest, who is the token debut author. The highlight of the program is Henry McTavish from Scotland, who is planning on killing off his detective, much to the chagrin of his publishers, who are also on board the train.
When one of the writers dies in front of an audience of thriller fans, it is up to the five remaining authors to band together to determine if the death was murder. Their reasoning is that, in the absence of police or legal authority, they are in the best position to solve the crime. As the victim was a very unpleasant man who managed to insult all of his colleagues in front of the audience at the first event, the writers’ suspicions fall on each other.
Maybe we had experts on the train after all. Five crime writers, each specialising in a different field. Five people who had spent decades researching every way to solve a crime. Or commit one.
I hadn’t even spoken but Juliette started vehemently shaking her head. ‘No. Ern. That doesn’t count.’
‘Hear me out.’
‘You need an autopsy. And someone who knows the actual law, otherwise you risk compromising evidence.’
‘We’ve got both of those.’
‘No, you don’t. These people are writers.’
‘Royce used to be a forensic pathologist. Lisa was in law. They’re experts.’ I was talking mostly to myself now, ticking off everyone’s qualifications in a rapid mutter. ‘Forensic thriller. Legal thrillers. Majors knows criminal psychology – interviews, profiles, that sort of thing. That’ll help. And Wolfgang – well I suppose literary fiction is a bit useless.’
This is, for the most part, true. Wolfgang’s contributions, except for a stunning bit of literary deduction involving a comma late in the piece, are lacklustre.
The conceit of both novels is that Ernest Cunningham makes his money on the internet writing about mystery writing. These novels are metafiction and a fine parody of a genre enjoyed by many. Ernest is not the most reliable of narrators but he plays by the rules and the tropes, all the while giving a sly wink to the reader. Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone is a classic closed-circle mystery, and in setting this new novel on the Ghan, Stevenson has now written something close to a locked-room mystery.
If you think you don’t already know the rules to writing a murder mystery, trust me, you do. It’s all intuitive. Let me give you an example. I’m writing this in the first person. That means, in order to have sat down and physically written about it, I survive the events of the book. First person means survival. Apologies in advance for the lack of suspense when I almost bite the dust in Chapter 28.
Setting the novel on the Ghan is genius as well as a homage to a classic novel of the genre. I was intrigued by the notion that every one of the writers – as well as others on the train – holds a grudge against the murdered author. Was the train setting a clue? The highlights of the journey, including side trips to Alice Springs and Coober Pedy, are well utilised to create dramatic and comedic effect as well as advancing the plot. When Ern has to leave the train as it is moving and then chases a suspect across a landscape of open mineshafts at Coober Pedy, I was in laugh-out-loud territory and simultaneously tense as the action played out.
Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect is a wonderful and knowing nod to the joys of detective fiction, its writers and its tropes, its fans and its readers. The bonus of this novel is that it is also a satirical look at the publishing scene and writers’ festivals. I snorted and scoffed all the way through this book. Stevenson has the knack of ruthlessly dissecting his own story yet maintaining the suspense and mystique of the mystery. This clever book is a glorious delight.
Benjamin Stevenson Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect Michael Joseph 2023 PB 352pp $32.99
Michael Jongen is a librarian and you can find him as @larrydlibrarian on Instagram and Threads.
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