Book review: Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson

Wednesday, October 25, 2023 Permalink

Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson is a sequel to the equally lengthily-named Everyone in my Family has Killed Someone (EIMFHKS) – a book I absolutely loved. In fact I’ve really enjoyed all of Stevenson’s books but the narration in EIMFHKS was outstanding. Written conversationally and very VERY cleverly in first person – sometimes second – the narrative is delivered via the droll, witty, exceedingly forthright writer-turned accidental detective (turned novelist) Ernest Cunningham.

Ernest is back here, and by the end of the first few paragraphs I’m reminded why I so adored this book’s predecessor.  Stevenson’s voice… well that of Ernest is again the stand-out.

Book review: Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect by Benjamin StevensonEveryone On This Train Is A Suspect
by Benjamin Stevenson
Series: Ernest Cunningham #2
Published by Michael Joseph
on 17/10/2023
Source: Penguin Random House Australia
Genres: Crime Fiction, Humour, Thriller / Suspense
ISBN: 9780143779940
Pages: 352

When the Australian Mystery Writers’ Society invited me to their crime-writing festival aboard the Ghan, the famous train between Darwin and Adelaide, I was hoping for some inspiration for my second book. Fiction, this time: I needed a break from real people killing each other. Obviously, that didn’t pan out.

The program is a who’s who of crime writing royalty:
- the debut writer (me!)
- the forensic science writer
- the blockbuster writer
- the legal thriller writer
- the literary writer
- the psychological suspense writer

But when one of us is murdered, the remaining authors quickly turn into five detectives. Together, we should know how to solve a crime.
Of course, we should also know how to commit one. How can you find a killer when all the suspects know how to get away with murder?

I initially thought Stevenson introduced too many characters – even though there’s a glossary in the front akin to a program of writers participating in the very strange writers’ festival – ie. onboard a train. I couldn’t keep them straight in my head – who’s who. That settled once we got to know them a little – though this is far more about Ernest’s detecting skills and the murders than the players who – of course – we only see through Ernest’s eyes or others’ comments.

The book opens as Ernest is about to board the train for the writers’ festival. He’s been struggling to get his second book written and hoping inspiration will strike. Which of course it does because he’s again presented with an opportunity to document a true crime investigation – in which he’s (again) a main player. There’s so much I love about these books but it’s predominantly Stevenson’s writing (via Ernest’s story-telling). He tells us there are rules when writing mysteries, one of which requires honesty from our narrator and Ernest is unashamedly so.

As an avid reader and having attended some writing festivals and met a few writers I found Ernest’s (not – ahem – Stevenson’s) observations about writers and agents interesting, enjoying the commentary on genres and literary snobbery. And, for crime fiction lovers, it is – of course – the quintessential locked room mystery given it takes place on a moving train.

A bunch of writers in a room requires a collective noun that the English language doesn’t have. A condolence, perhaps. A sympathy. It’s a war hospital for the written word. p 179

I loved the way Stevenson (well, Ernest) gives us a running tally of the number of times suspects’ names are mentioned. The prose is whip-smart and narrative engaging and so very very clever. I’ve talked before about my love of wise-cracking gumshoes and Stevenson brings those beloved characters from the 1960s and 1970s into the 21st century.

Of course, the motivations behind the crimes here are evident but not obvious, rather they are complex and Ernest unearths long-kept secrets and long-held grudges – both personal and professional.

And in keeping with the rules Ernest sets out, this culminates with an Agatha Christie style reveal….

Hatch cleared his throat. “Does it usually take this long?”

All the crime writers in the room said simultaneously: “Yes.”

“I have to go through everyone’s motives and alibis publicly,” I said. “It’s basically a requirement of the genre.” p 312

However… the identification of the killer was the only thing I didn’t love about this novel. I felt Stevenson doesn’t really taken us on the whodunnit journey – or at least give us the necessary leads as some seemed a bit of a leap – such as reference to the Oxford comma for example, as well as a very long bow drawn in relation to a theft of flowers. It also made no sense (to the logic-lover in me) that Ernest gave chase to the baddie (endangering his life) given they were on a moving train and there was a police officer present. They’re perhaps minor, but the only things preventing me giving this (a very rare, for me) five stars.

So, all of that aside, I loved this book. I can’t wait for more Ernest and would be very happy for more from Stevenson full stop, as he’s become one of my favourite (very witty) voices in Australian crime fiction.

Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson was published by Penguin (Michael Joseph) in Australia and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.


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