“On March 7, 1913, the steamer Alum Chine explodes in the Baltimore
harbor. Charles Sherwood, the founder of the company that insures the steamer,
is among the first to hear the blast. As he struggles to keep calm, Charles
suspects that if it is the Alum Chine
that has been decimated, he is now in the midst of a nightmare. While he
attempts to cope with the consequences that include his son’s diffidence to the
calamity, the disaster touches two other families. Helen Aylesforth is the
imperious matriarch of her family whose stern demeanor belies her love for
those around her, including her daughter, Cantata, who is married to Nicholas
Sherwood. The Corporals have served the Aylesforths for generations. Among
their six-member family is Lillian Gish, Helen’s shy, forgotten, and observant
granddaughter who must somehow find her place in the world, despite the chaos
This is not an action, page-turner of a
novel, except for the explosion of the ship nothing much actually happens … but … this is a story of
ordinary people coping with extraordinary consequences. The story is of two
families, of how they lived life in Baltimore in the early years of the
twentieth century, and had to get on with that life even though enormous things
were happening all around and to them.
The description of the period and of
Baltimore itself is very well written – as a social history this is an
excellent novel, but as character development or an action novel, maybe it
doesn’t quite hit the mark?
However, do you need constant action to
make a novel an interesting one? Echoes From
The Alum Chine has a gentle and sedate rhythm to it, the relationships
between the two families is interesting,
how they cope is interesting ... as a
depiction of family drama in the pre-World War One era of American life, this is an interesting read.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the author is a former railway man. His knowledge of railway jargon and the workings of trains and railway procedures is phenomenal. Of course, it is possible that he spent a lot of time on research.
The story opens in Ireland with two brothers who are forced to flee after being involved in an attempted theft of grain that went wrong. Many years later, one of the brothers dies. On the day of his funeral, a dead body is found in the railway yard, which turns out to be the son of the other brother fresh off the boat from Canada. At the same time boxes of dynamite are discovered missing from a rail car.
Enter Sergeant Sam Spray and Constable William Archer. Love interest is in the person of Lizzie Oldroyd who provides lodging and food for the two cops and worries about Sam. Nothing hot and heavy here which suits the period and the story. The most likeable character, however, is an enterprising eleven-year-old boy named Jimmy Allcroft who manages to get in on the sleuthing. Sam loses a few points because of his impatience with Jimmy.
The mystery is put together cleverly and involves Fenians and royalty, and kept me guessing to the end, but it was a little slow moving, and there was just a little too much ‘railway’ in it for my liking. Perhaps inevitably given that the sleuths belong to the railway police, but some rather lengthy descriptions of the movement of trains tended to interfere with my enjoyment of the story.
I do wonder why the cover depicts a horse, as magnificent as he is, pulling a canal barge though. Something railway connected would surely be more suitable? I also feel that maybe the price of the e-book is a little high?
Despite the above, railway enthusiasts will enjoy this story for its detail.