Originally published in 1944
Also known as The Black Express by Conyth Little
Who was she? Where was she going? And why?
All she knew about herself she got from a fellow passenger on the train. According to this dubious source, she was Miss Cleo Ballister, a pretty, shabbily dressed actress who had been struck on the head with a valise which had tumbled from an upper bunk and completely blotted out her memory. Now here she was en route to Melbourne to meet relatives she couldn’t remember ever having heard of before.
As the trip went relentlessly on, Cleo picked up a whole family – Uncle Joe, Aunt Esther, miscellaneous cousins, and two unknown boy friends, both of whom claimed to be engaged to her. Flickers of the past tantalized her memory, serving only to add to her frightened mental confusion. Finally murder boarded the Trans-Australian express, and Cleo Ballister was seriously implicated. A series of fantastic events build up to a climax that unveils a murderer and “Cleo’s” lost identity.
Those who have followed this blog for a while will know that I am a subscriber to the Coffee and Crime subscription box run by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime. It is always a thrill when I get book post, particularly as Kate always seems to pick out something by authors who are new to me. Great Black Kanba is a great case in point. Not only was the edition I received a beautiful Dell Mapback, the first in my collection, it was by two authors I knew relatively little about.
Constance and Gwenyth Little were Australian sisters who wrote together as Conyth Little in the 1940s and early 50s. I had seen several intriguing reviews for their work including some from Kate herself. This book, also sometimes known as The Black Express, comes from the middle of their careers and is set in that most appealing of all Golden Age locales – a train.
The hook for the story is that the narrator begins the story having completely lost her memory to the point where she does not remember her own name. Instead she is told who she is and where she is traveling to by a stranger who deduced that information from searching through her baggage. We quickly realize though that this information could be incorrect as the only identity document she has, a driving licence application for Sydney, does not feature a photograph.
Among the items in her purse is a letter from Uncle Joe who tells her that he and the family will meet her at Melbourne. She goes to the meeting as Cleo, assuming that her memory will simply return in time, keeping that a secret from them. Given that Cleo was to meet most of the party for the first time, their ready acceptance of her hardly proves the matter of her identity either.
Memory loss is one of those tropes that can feel really quite corny, in part because this sort of total memory loss is really, really rare and, I imagine, rarely caused by a falling valise. Given that the whole story is built around that idea it does mean that you do have to come to this with an acceptance of the artificiality of the setup. If you can accept that idea though I feel that the story takes that idea in some really interesting and entertaining directions.
One of the most stressful parts of the situation for “Cleo” is that she is met by two men, each claiming that they are engaged to her. While she is trying to work out who exactly she is, she also has to navigate these relationships and figure out which of them (if any) she can trust. It is not only an entertaining situation in terms of often awkward conversation, it does relate back to the core mystery of who she is as one of them shares some information about herself that she does not want to believe.
I found the discussion of the logistics of traveling across the Australian continent by rail to be utterly fascinating. Not only did this trip require multiple changes to one’s watch as you cross multiple time zones, you also needed to change trains on several occasions. This was not because you were needing to head in a different direction but because the Australian states had decided to use different rail gauges when building the network, making it impossible for a single train to complete a coast to coast journey.
The relationships between the Australian states has another interesting impact on the story later on, following the first murder. The complex question of jurisdictional authority crops up, creating an obstacle for the police forces in investigating that crime. These are just two examples of the ways that the novel’s setting and the train journey itself create an interesting backdrop to the crime investigation plot.
You may have noticed that while I have referenced murder, I have not shared any details of the circumstances leading to it. That reflects that we do not see a murder committed until over halfway through the book, long past the point I feel comfortable spoiling. Trust though that this is not simply an investigation into identity and that the Littles give us a compelling murder story too.
In her own review of this book, Kate shares her frustration with the book’s ending which she felt was rushed. I do understand what she means, although I thought that the explanation of what had happened was interesting and hung together very well. I definitely share the frustration though with the circumstances in which we learn that information.
Basically the trouble is that we have two different styles of narrative being forced to coexist. One is a psychological suspense story about a forgotten identity while the second is a more traditional murder story. Both are fascinating and there are some really interesting connections between those two story threads. The problem is however that while the first thread is responsible for turning up some of the information about the second, it is hard to say that the heroes really do much to bring about the ending. It is instead something that seems to happen to them. Similarly, the confession is something we hear rather than something that is actively brought about.
I do think it important to stress though that my issues with the ending are almost all presentational rather than substantive. While I may wish that the central characters were more directly responsible for solving the case, the actual solution to the murders is very clever and thoughtfully clued, pulling together several seemingly disconnected strands of the plot. I was largely satisfied, even if I wish that the final chapter had presented us with a more credible cause for the memory loss than the fallen bag explanation.
This was my first taste of the writing of Constance and Gwenyth Little but I am fairly confident that it will not be my last…
The Verdict: Fascinating story that blends suspense and whodunnit elements effectively, although be prepared to wait for the murder. The solution is clever and well clued although the way it is revealed is a little underwhelming.