The Sleeping Car Murders (1962) by Sebastien Japrisot

The Sleeping-Car Murders by Sebastien Japrisot

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

To tell you the truth, I’m a very bad cop; I hate suspecting people. I’d rather condemn them all. There’s no such thing as an innocent man.”

Five passengers board the 10:30 sleeper train from Marseille. When the train arrives in Paris the next morning, however, only four disembark. The fifth passenger is still lying in her berth, but she hasn’t overslept. She is dead. Inspector Grazziano is prepared for a tedious effort to identify this woman and the other passengers who shared her sleeping car. What he doesn’t expect is that someone else is also hunting for these witnesses—a cunning killer who always seems to be one step ahead of the police.

The Sleeping Car Murders is a dazzlingly kaleidoscopic murder mystery reminiscent of Cornell Woolrich. Organized around the six berths of the sleeping car (one of them empty…or is it?), the novel examines each of the passengers in turn, these sharp little fragments briefly illuminating a series of ordinary lives. Intercut with the passengers’ experiences, Inspector Grazziano trudges through an investigation that takes on an unexpected urgency as the corpses pile up.

Grazziano, known as “Grazzi,” is appealingly gruff and pragmatic as he tracks down potential witnesses. His efforts are often hindered, rather than helped, by his assistant Gabert, a rich dilettante who amuses himself with a handheld game during interrogations. Grazzi doesn’t expect to get much useful information from the other passengers; as one of them points out apologetically, “on a night train, you’re really only thinking about sleeping.” And indeed, as word of the murder spreads through the city, each person’s memories of their night in the sleeping car say a great deal about their own concerns but, seemingly, very little about the crime.

These people are afraid, certainly, but not of being killed. Instead, they are in a panic that their embarrassing secrets be revealed by police. Everyone has their own preoccupations, their own little dreads and fears that predate the murder and continue on after it. These characters still worry about their jobs, dread the future, even fall in love, all in the shadow of crime, but each individual’s circumstances will affect the way they react to the murder. Their delirious stream-of-consciousness narratives are so intensely personal that the reader is plunged straight into the characters’ deepest anxieties. Within these jumbles of emotion, however, any number of clues are hidden in plain sight. Drab little René Cabourg, for instance, is eager to confess, but to what, exactly?

Tomorrow morning he would go to see the Inspector, room 303, third floor. He would tell him exactly what had happened. That he was alone, that he was ugly, that he had always been that way, that in Marseille a woman he didn’t know had made it quite clear through a hotel room wall, that he was a loser…That he had never understood anything about life, about the part of it others enjoyed so much. They had learned the rules—God knows how, but they had learned them—and he never had.

The other passengers have their own stories to tell, though the stories they tell themselves are not always the ones the police get to hear, with Japrisot constantly mixing up the format to keep the plot twisting along. As the murders continue, pressure on the police only increases, as Grazzi becomes painfully aware that every witness he is searching for could turn out to be either the killer or the next victim.

The dead woman herself is equally mysterious. Even after she is identified as cosmetics saleswoman Georgette Thomas, Grazzi has a difficult time making sense of a personality that seems full of contradictions. The victim’s sister tries to explain how Georgette could be both greedy and generous, selfish yet capable of giving and inspiring affection.

She was very ambitious. At least—I don’t know how to say it—she was capable of working very hard and making all kinds of sacrifices to get the things she wanted. But money itself didn’t interest her. She was only interested in the things she owned, the things she had bought with her money. She used to say, “That’s mine; that belongs to me; that’s my coat.” Things like that. Do you understand?

Grazzi doesn’t understand, leaving him unable to determine whether the crime’s roots are in Paris or Marseille. “He felt tired, a weariness that started in his head from too much thinking. He couldn’t put himself inside this poor girl’s skin, he didn’t understand her; there was no point in even trying. Question people, take notes, be a workhorse, and go home to your family at night, that’s all you can do.” The vast, impersonal machinery of the police is always emphasized; if Grazzi cannot solve the case, they will keep throwing resources at it until someone else can. There are no irreplaceable geniuses here, only tired men doing a job as best they can.

The Sleeping Car Murders is a stylish, unusual tale that effortlessly juggles multiple perspectives, leaving the reader uncertain which narrators can be trusted. The settings are enormously appealing, from the streets of Paris to the train itself. And the solution is ingenious even if it does feel extra-abrupt coming after the longest and slowest section of the book. While Japrisot holds back some information in order to preserve the surprise of the ending, the solution makes such perfect sense psychologically that I was still able to feel very clever by spotting the culprit just before the big reveal. The Sleeping Car Murders makes a complex trip through the minds of its characters, a journey that is well worth taking.

Second Opinion

Crossexamining Crime

I enjoyed how we received information via the suspects’ thoughts as well as via police interviews. The former often helped to maintain pace until the final third where suspect thoughts slowed things down. One of the surprises in the solution I saw coming, but another one definitely took me completely by the surprise. In some ways it felt quite realistic, but on the other hand I think the reader could have been more prepared for the motivations behind the crimes.

Availability

The Sleeping Car Murders is available in paperback from Gallic Books, who have kindly provided a review copy.

The 1965 film version, Compartiment tueurs, was directed by Costa-Gavras, starring Yves Montand as Grazzi.

The Come Back (1921) by Carolyn Wells

The Come Back by Carolyn Wells

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

It’s not so easy to prove an accident,—or a murder, either,—when there’s practically no clew to be found.”

Many years ago, a fortune-teller predicted that Peter Crane would be lost on a long journey, only to return after his death. Though Peter has grown up in the shadow of this prophecy, he’s always laughed it off. 

An expedition to the Canadian wilderness ends in tragedy, however, when Peter vanishes during a snowstorm. His best friends Kit Shelby and Gilbert Blair hurry home to break the news to Peter’s parents in person. To their surprise, the Cranes already seem aware of their son’s death. For weeks, they have been receiving strange messages by Ouija board. They are certain Peter has come back to them from the other side, just as the gypsy predicted. As the Cranes descend deeper into the world of spiritualism, their friends begin to worry. Is there really such a thing as life after death? And will another member of their circle soon be joining Peter in an early grave? Continue reading “The Come Back (1921) by Carolyn Wells”

Cottage Sinister (1931) by Q. Patrick

Cottage Sinister by Q Patrick

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“There’s something all wrong about this. God alone knows what it means.”

Lady’s Bower is the loveliest cottage in Somersetshire—more beautiful, even, than the nearby manor house Crosby Hall. Visitors are often surprised to find this choice property occupied by a servant, but Mrs. Lubbock deserves it after her years of service to the Crosby family. Mrs. Lubbock is enjoying a happy retirement, with her three daughters settled in life. Amy and Isabel are ladies’ maids in London. Lucy, a trained nurse, lives at home with her mother while working in the village hospital. It’s even rumored that Lucy has caught the eye of Dr. Christopher Crosby, the heir to Crosby Hall.

It seems impossible that anything bad could happen in such an idyllic setting. But the Lubbock family’s peaceful life is about to be shattered by violent death…not just once, but again and again. Continue reading “Cottage Sinister (1931) by Q. Patrick”

The Glass Slipper (1938) by Mignon G Eberhart

The Glass Slipper by Mignon G Eberhart

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I’m afraid. I’m afraid of this house. I’m afraid of every shadow and every sound. I’m afraid when the door opens; I think I’ll die during that split second when I see the door’s about to open and can’t see yet that it’s just a policeman. Or someone I know…”

From the outside, Rue’s life looks like a Cinderella story. The former nurse has married her boss, brilliant surgeon Brule Hatterick, after the death of his wife Crystal. But no one ever tells you what to do when the fairy tale goes wrong. Brule has married Rue out of convenience so that she can run his home and raise his teenage daughter in the same efficient way she runs the operating room. The household remains loyal to Crystal’s memory, however. Rue can’t seem to get a foothold with the servants and young Madge won’t even speak to her. Rue is painfully aware that she isn’t beautiful like Crystal. She doesn’t know her way around high society. And if her marriage to Brule is strictly business, how long is he going to keep her around if she can’t fulfill her side of the bargain?

Just when it seems her situation couldn’t get worse, Rue learns that police are investigating the death of Brule’s first wife. Rue was the nurse on duty when Crystal Hatterick died, and it would be very convenient for Crystal’s friends and family if an outsider were the killer. The clock is about to strike midnight. Rue’s happy ending is in danger…and so is her life. Continue reading “The Glass Slipper (1938) by Mignon G Eberhart”

The Clock in the Hatbox (1939) by Anthony Gilbert

The Clock in the Hatbox by Anthony Gilbert

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

I write this in case of emergencies. I have reason to believe that I am in great danger and I cannot say how it will all end.”

The jury is in, and no one expects a surprise. Viola Ross is clearly guilty of murdering her husband Edward. She had the means, the opportunity, and certainly the motive—Edward Ross was suspicious of his younger wife’s relationship with his son Harry. Much to everyone’s shock, however, it’s a hung jury, with one juror refusing to convict.

The lone holdout on the jury is novelist Richard Arnold, who remains convinced of Viola’s innocence. He is determined to find the real killer before Viola’s retrial, even if it means risking his relationship, his reputation, and even his life. Continue reading “The Clock in the Hatbox (1939) by Anthony Gilbert”

Fear by Night (1934) by Patricia Wentworth

Fear by Night by Patricia Wentworth

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“No one lives here, and no one comes here. The people who live round about, they wouldn’t come here if you paid them. And why wouldn’t they? Because, I’m telling you, it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous and it’s deep.”

All Ann Vernon wants is lunch, but her boyfriend Charles is late again. As she waits for him in the lobby of the Luxe Hotel, she can’t help overhearing a conversation nearby. “If he dies the whole thing will be in the papers. She must be got away at once before she knows,” says one man. “And then?” asks the other. A heavy silence is the only reply. As soon as Charles arrives, Ann forgets all about it. She has no idea these strangers are talking about her. Continue reading “Fear by Night (1934) by Patricia Wentworth”

Vanish in an Instant (1952) by Margaret Millar

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“We may never know the truth of what happened. Maybe there isn’t any whole truth about anything, just a lot of  versions, of different colors and different flavors, like ice cream, and you pick the most palatable.”

The holidays are a time to be with family, but Mrs. Hamilton never imagined she would be visiting hers in jail. Her daughter Virginia has been accused of an unspeakable crime, and she is a suspect that only a mother could love. Even Virginia’s own lawyer, Eric Meecham, dislikes his spoiled client and her overbearing mother. Little does he realize how complicated his first murder case is about to become. Continue reading “Vanish in an Instant (1952) by Margaret Millar”

Moss Rose (1934) by Joseph Shearing

Moss Rose by Joseph Shearing

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Christmas Day, thought Belle, and things going on just the same. People at the mortuary ready to bring round the hearse, doctors and policemen on duty, and all that crowd of idlers in the street, with nothing better to do than just stare at the house where a stupid woman, for whom nobody cared, was murdered last night.”

It’s Christmas Eve, and Belle Adair is about to cut her throat. Once a lady (more or less), Belle is now reduced to the most sordid poverty. Dancing in the pantomime when she’s lucky, walking the streets when she’s not, spending more and more of her meager funds on gin–it’s no kind of life, she decides. Due to a strange twist of fate, however, it isn’t Belle who is found with her throat cut on Christmas morning, but her neighbor Daisy. Belle is sure she knows more about the murder than Scotland Yard. If she plays her cards right, this could be the chance of a lifetime, but the slightest miscalculation could lead to Belle from the gutter to the grave. Continue reading “Moss Rose (1934) by Joseph Shearing”

Reprint of the Year Nomination 2: The Little Lie

The Little Lie by Jean Potts

Who among us has never told a lie? The power of domestic suspense comes from its ability to infuse the everyday with horror, even something as mundane as a little white lie. Few authors are more skilled than Jean Potts at tapping into these anxieties, and The Little Lie (reissued by Stark House) may be her masterpiece. Potts uses a single moment of dishonesty to prod at the many other secrets and lies hidden beneath the surface of small-town life, as one small sin escalates into shocking consequences. Continue reading “Reprint of the Year Nomination 2: The Little Lie”

Reprint of the Year Nomination 1: Beat Back the Tide

Footsteps in the Night and Beat Back the Tide by Dolores Hitchens

“It’s terrible when you fasten all your life to a mirage…The worst of it all is when you begin to see the truth—not the truth as the other might have revealed it, but finding it scrap by scrap, little by little. All the time you’re clinging to what you thought was there, and the change, the corruption, is eating it away, and finally there is nothing at all and you think it would be better to die.”

California is a place to reinvent yourself, but what happens when that doesn’t work? When you don’t find what you’re looking for and there’s nowhere left to go? That’s why California noir is the most hopeless. For the characters in Dolores Hitchens’ 1954 novel Beat Back the Tide, California is the end of the line. The gulf between its dazzling promises and what it actually delivers is profound. Everyone has a past they are trying to forget, but, like the tide, it just keeps roaring back. Continue reading “Reprint of the Year Nomination 1: Beat Back the Tide”