Jim Stringer is a railway detective working out of York station. Not long after the First World War is declared the drive is on to encourage men to conscript. One means to entice men to join up was the formation of 'Pals' battalions made up of men from the same village or company. Stringer signs up for the North Eastern Railway Battalion, 'The Railway Pals', and is shipped off to Hull for basic training. Given his police background the army want him to join the military police, but Stringer refuses, wanting to stay with his colleagues. The result is despite his age and social standing he enters the army on the lowest rung and seems destined to stay there. Whilst on Spurn Head in the Humber estuary one of his group is found dead one morning. The military police are drafted in and suspect foul play. The Pals head to France, the military police trailing after them. They are immediately transported to the front to work on digging trenches ahead of the Somme battle. They take part in the first days of the Somme action and are then transferred to laying the track and running miniature trains that transport ammunition to the frontline at night and often under fire. One by one a number of Stringer's group are killed, some seemingly at the hands of the pals. As Stringer tries to piece together who the killer is, the military police become more and more convinced that it is him.
The Somme Stations is the seventh Jim Stringer railway detective series and the first I've read. It can certainly be read as a standalone. The strength of the book is in placing the reader in the lives of a small group of men as they go through their training and onwards to the frontline, and the historical detail concerning the use of miniature railway system to transport ammunition and supplies along the front. The lead character is rather unassuming character and relatively uncharismatic, which I found a somewhat welcome change to some detective series. He is surrounded by a motley crew of characters that are well penned. Where I had problems was with respect to the plot. The book has a ponderous start and a weak end. In fact, with the exception of the time on Spurn Head, the time in Blighty (the beginning and end) felt flat and listless. The ending in particular didn't work for me. At one point, one of the characters said something like, 'You worked it out from that?', pretty much as I was thinking the same thing. The mystery element relies on unlikely coincidences, an unlikely confession in terms of location (where an entire carriage of men can potentially overhear), and leaps of imagination, and it's hard to believe that Stringer suddenly developed a Poirot-like mind. I also think the book would have also been stronger if it had been written in the third person. It would have allowed the narrator more scope to describe and explain both the main plot and to contextualise the First World War. Overall, the bulk of the book, especially the time in France, was an engaging and informative read and made the book worth reading; it was just a shame that the mystery wasn't quite up to scratch.