Monday, December 12, 2011

"Murder In the First Class Carriage" by Kate Colquhoun

If you have ever read a British "whodunit" by Agatha Christie, or if you enjoy movies such as "The Lady Vanishes", then this is the book for you. Painstakingly researched, and written in the manner of a good murder-mystery, this book grabs your attention on page one, and keeps you reading, looking for the one clue that will solve the mystery of just who murdered Thomas Briggs, an elderly banker travelling alone on the North London Railway in 1864. Mr. Briggs was a punctual man, bankers generally are, and when he did not return home at the expected time, his family knew that something was wrong. How right they were.

There had never been a murder on a British train before July 9th, 1864, and the crime galvanized the nation. Scotland Yard sent their best detectives to solve the case, as well as assuage the public's concern. This was a new type of crime, one that would affect even the wealthiest of citizens. Travelling in First Class was not as safe as one would suppose. British trains back then did not have a common interior passageway, you boarded from the outside and the conductor locked the door from the outside. You were, in effect, in solitary confinement for the distance between stations. That is where Mr. Briggs was killed, between stations.

With no real forensics to go by; fingerprinting and blood typing were still a bit in the future; the case is baffling to the police, while the public clamors for the murderer to be brought to justice. At this point, Inspector Tanner of the Metropolitan Police Force is placed in charge of the case and quickly has a suspect. The alleged killer turns out to be a German man named Franz Muller. Employed as a tailor, Mr. Muller made his living by travelling from country to country, plying his trade. This was not unusual at the time. The sewing machine had just been invented a little over a decade earlier, and tailors were in great demand.

What really makes this book is the fact that it marks the first time a killer is pursued across the ocean, by ship, to America. Making it even better is the technology that came into play in order to make the arrest. Muller left for America within a few days of the murder. During that time he pawned a watch chain which had belonged to the victim. He used the proceeds to purchase a different chain and a ring, which he proceeded to show off. He then sailed for America aboard a sailing vessel. Detective Tanner, after developing his case, set sail on a steam powered vessel, intending to beat him to New York, where he would be awaiting Müller’s' arrival with Extradition papers in hand. Against the backdrop of the American Civil War, he was able to obtain the necessary documents to bring Muller back to England for trial.

Back in England, with the suspect on trial for murder, the Prosecution relied on mostly circumstantial evidence to convict, and then execute, Franz Muller for the murder of Thomas Briggs. The verdict was mainly reached due to an indentation on the victim’s hat, by a thumb, which kind of matched that of the accused.

Was Mr. Muller really guilty? I'm not sure; you will have to decide for yourself. Full of high drama and suspense, this book will have you wondering about progress, and its effect upon justice, both then, and now.

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