“There was something subtly wrong with the entire gathering. There were undertones she couldn’t evaluate, nuances she couldn’t put a firm finger on, that dissolved at a touch.”
It’s always awkward to run into an ex unexpectedly, especially when you’re with your new fiance. Rose O’Hara never saw any reason to tell Nils that she’d been engaged before. After Daniel Font jilted her to marry Candy, Rose never planned to see him again. She certainly didn’t expect him to burst into her train compartment, covered in blood.
It turns out that Candy and her mother Loretta are related to Rose’s wealthy cousin, Elizabeth Questing. In fact, the vulgar and grasping Loretta believes Elizabeth cheated her out of an inheritance. All are trapped on a train together, on their way to Elizabeth’s summer home in the Canadian Rockies.
Another cousin, the mysterious Gilbert Davidson, lies dead in compartment K. It’s his blood staining Daniel’s jacket. He’s the one Daniel swears he didn’t kill. When Rose decides to help Daniel, it may be at the cost of her new relationship—or even her life.
Detective Todhunter of the New York City Police Department is also on that train, and not by coincidence. A few days ago, an unidentified woman was beaten to death in the courtyard of Elizabeth Questing’s Murray Hill mansion. Now Gilbert has been shot and his camera is missing. Certain the two murders are connected, Todhunter pursues the suspects to Lake Louise. More blood will be shed before he uncovers the complicated motive behind the crimes.
Often cited as one of the earliest authors of realistic police procedurals, Helen Reilly began her series about Inspector McKee of Centre Street in 1930. But the McKee novels also have a strong romantic-suspense element, and this is definitely the emphasis in Compartment K. Todhunter is the main investigator with his boss McKee providing support from New York. (The NYPD’s jurisdiction is rather wide-ranging. Though nearly all the crimes were committed in Canada, local authorities happily allow Todhunter to run the investigation.)
There are many valid criticisms one could make about Compartment K. Lack of a strong detective figure, for example, or one of the dumbest heroines alive. Yet I enjoyed it immensely.
For me, the real pleasure of Reilly’s work is vicariously experiencing these gilded lives. Candy’s pink poodle, Augustus, is touched up every two weeks with “tintex.” Rose judges Candy for overdressing (“only Candy would wear gloves on a train”), just before she herself changes into a fancy dress for the dining car. The quiet luxury of the first-class cars cannot calm Rose’s anxiety as she waits for Gilbert’s body to be discovered, but it delighted me:
The interim was not a breathing spell. It was filled with the tension of waiting and keeping up a front, with damask cloths and flowers and soft lights and stewards carrying laden trays, with people laughing and talking against the backdrop of the storm which rode with the speeding train into darkness. Two drinks with Nils in the lounge car, a third in the dining car. Rose watched a Frenchwoman with whom she had already exchanged nods and smiles choose an economical dinner with the greatest aplomb and get excellent service. Across the aisle two large ladies wearing browning corsages applied themselves to vegetable plates with bright determination.
Murder on a train is Todhunter’s worst nightmare. “In a house, an apartment, on a street, there were only so many doors, here there were doors everywhere.” His job hardly gets easier when they arrive at the Questing mansion and additional suspects reveal themselves. Rose doesn’t help matters by lying her head off at every opportunity. It bears repeating, if you’re looking for an intelligent heroine, this is not the book for you.
Elizabeth Questing, the axis around which this wheel of murder spins, is an intriguing figure who imparts an air of genuine mystery to the story. But Elizabeth has changed. “The real Elizabeth as Rose knew her wasn’t there. It was frightening. She was a different woman, stone-hard and braced and watchful under composure.” The change in Elizabeth makes everyone nervous. It turns out that most of these “wealthy” New Yorkers are actually in dire straits. They would do anything for Elizabeth’s money, but there are many dramatic twists and reversals surrounding the Questing fortune. More than once, it seems that someone may be killing for nothing, until new secrets change the picture.
Like Elizabeth, the lake is almost sinister in its cold perfection, a lovely backdrop for murder.
After Nils had gone, [Rose] sat at and looked at the white ribbon of a glacier in the distance. Order was being restored. The guests were dispersing. Holiday, merrymaking, honeymooning…and that sodden mound. She felt sick.
Between deaths, the suspects have a great time, hiking in tweeds, enjoying cocktails, and flirting with each other’s partners. I kind of want to spend my vacation there. It may have a high murder rate, but there are certainly worse ways to go.
Mike Grost (part of a detailed analysis of Reilly’s works; spoilers abound)
It is an uneven, fairly minor book. As detailed below, it has both strengths and weaknesses. It might please readers who want light suspense in a genuinely glamorous setting (the beautiful Canadian Rockies) […] The flow of plot revelations is pleasant enough reading, and shows sound construction, with each revelation taking us deeper and deeper into the solution of the mystery. However, this material is not well clued, and thus not “fair play”. It is therefore hardly any sort of “mystery puzzle” that the reader could reason out. The reader can only sit back and passively read the various new plot developments as they are revealed.
This was a rather pedestrian offering on the part of Reilly. Perhaps it was the lack of McKee or perhaps it was the feeling that she had loaded the story with so many of the standard trappings: heroine in danger; surprise relatives; secret marriages; a bit of blackmail; and all that melodramatic suspense (generated by the heroine in danger)–I’m not certain. But the book definitely felt a little flat and not up to Reilly’s usual standard.
Compartment K is sadly out of print, though several of Helen Reilly’s other novels are back in print as ebooks.
Some inexpensive used copies are available. It was also published by the Detective Book Club as part of a 3-in-1 volume with Night Drop by Frederick C. Davis and Double Image by Roy Vickers.