CRIME

MURDER IN THE FIRST-CLASS CARRIAGE

The First Victorian Railway Killing

By Kate Colquhoun

Overlook. 339 pp. $24.95

On a summer evening in Victorian London, a railway worker was alerted to a disturbing scene in a first-class carriage: Blood was soaking the seat cushions and had been splattered over the floor and windows.

’Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing’ by Kate Colquhoun (The Overlook Press)

Soon after, authorities found the body of banker Thomas Briggs lying near the train tracks. The 1864 murder set in motion an investigation that captured the public imagination and became the subject of chatter in living rooms and taverns across Britain. 

Relying largely on primary sources, Kate Colquhoun’s “Murder in the First-Class Carriage” sketches the moves of London detectives as they worked to solve the case and bring the perpetrator to justice. It reads like a 19th-century version of a “Law & Order” episode, with every break in the case making the reader wonder which witnesses are fallible, which leads are worth following, and what clues the police may have missed or botched. It adds up to a suspenseful, well-paced account of a baffling mystery.

But Colquhoun’s book isn’t just about the investigation. It’s about how the case came to transfix Londoners and what that obsession said about the zeitgeist. “The murder had occasioned a public clamour for detective success, for evil to be contained and order reimposed,” Colquhoun writes. “What the country wanted was superhuman sagacity and ingenuity on the part of their police force, for heroism that would confirm that they were protected.” 

The killing had more concrete effects, too. Colquhuon explains that the case led to changes in train-safety regulations and new rights for criminal defendants. And it served as a clear example of the power of the penny press, which played a major role in stirring readers’ feverish interest in the case.

Sarah Halzack

halzacks@washpost.com