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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sleeping-Car Murders

Sebastien Japrisot

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To purchase The Sleeping-Car Murders

Title: The Sleeping-Car Murders
Author: Sebastien Japrisot
Genre: Novel
Written: 1962 (Eng. 1963)
Length: 181 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Sleeping-Car Murders - US
The Sleeping-Car Murders - UK
The Sleeping-Car Murders - Canada
Compartiment tueurs - Canada
Compartiment tueurs - France
Mord im Fahrpreis inbegriffen - Deutschland
Scompartimento omicidi - Italia
  • French title: Compartiment tueurs
  • Originally published in English as The 10:30 from Marseilles
  • Translated by by Francis Price
  • Compartiment tueurs was filmed in 1965; Costa-Gavras directed, with Yves Montand as Inspector Graziani, Simone Signoret and Michel Piccoli as two of the victims, and Jean-Louis Trintignant

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Our Assessment:

B : quite clever, but exposition both too cramped and rushed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 20/3/1964 Violet Grant
Sunday Times . 29/3/1964 Julian Symons

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) strongly plotted story of murder in a second-class couchette, with a clever ironical ending. For a first novel it is remarkable." - Violet Grant, Daily Telegraph

  • "A typical French crime story, in that it starts soberly and becomes more sensational with each chapter. (...) Quite characterful and interesting" - Julian Symons, Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Sleeping-Car Murders (originally published in English as The 10:30 from Marseilles) begins with the Saturday morning arrival of the overnight train from Marseilles at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. The man whose job it is to check the empty compartments after the passengers have disembarked takes his time before making his rounds -- but when he does, he finds a corpse. A dead woman, quite clearly murdered -- though apparently not robbed. She is thirty-year-old Georgette Thomas, a "demonstrator-saleswoman" for a cosmetics company in Paris who had been in Marseilles professionally for a few days.
       Inspector Antoine Pierre Emile Grazziano leads the case. Everyone calls him Grazzi -- except for his boss, Commissioner Tarquin, who often refers to him as Holmes. Among the first things the police do is try to identify the other passengers who shared the compartment with the victim. Getting a list with the names -- at least the last names -- of the six people who had reserved the berths in the compartment isn't difficult; sharing the information with the press, who publish it in the next day's newspaper, might help track down these people but maybe isn't the best idea .....
       The police investigate by the book. They try to identify the other passengers -- easier in some cases than others --, have preliminary conversations with some of them and other persons of interest on the phone or in person, and ask them to come down to headquarters -- the Quai des Orfèvres -- for follow-up interviews. The problem is ... the people who were in the compartment are apparently being hunted down, eliminated one after another -- with a .45 with a silencer -- in rather quick succession.
       With so much happening so quickly, much of it over a sleepy weekend, it takes a while for the police to even realize they're not keeping up with the rapidly unfolding events. So, for example, the first of the victims after Georgette isn't even quickly identified, and so for a while the police suspect that he might be involved in the crime, rather than a potential witness who has been done away with.
       It's all rather mystifying, beginning with a possible motive. While the deaths of the others in the compartment presumably are to cover up the traces of the initial murder, the police are stumped as to why anyone would kill Georgette Thomas in the first place. No one connected to either her personal or professional life would seem to have much reason to kill her, and the investigations here threaten to come to a dead end.
       Someone points out that: "the only perfect crime was a crime that had no motive", and that seems to apply here -- until a possible motive surfaces: Georgette had won the lottery, and was apparently carrying the winning ticket with her. The pay-out isn't a fortune -- seven hundred thousand old francs -- but may be enough to drive someone to murder ?
       Of course, puzzles remain. The Commissioner makes some good points:

     "It's the gun," Tarquin said. "The woman in the train was strangled, and all the others were shot by a .45 with grooved cartridges -- it doesn't fit together. And there's something else: how has he managed to find the people he wanted, faster than we could find them ?
       As the number of potential witnesses dwindles, the race to identify and find the last ones heats up.
       Already early on the Commissioner was certain:
     No ! It's in the train that everything happened, Mister Holmes ! It's that night you have to know everything about. From ten-thirty Friday night to seven-fifty Saturday morning; that's the beginning and the end of it.
       Of course, it takes quite a while to figure that out, as the witnesses in the compartment have slightly different stories to tell -- and sometimes don't get around to revealing this or that bit of information before they are silenced.
       Japrisot's idea is fairly clever, but the execution a bit lumbering. The idea of shifting between police investigation and the different passengers -- with chapters titled e.g. 'Berth 221' when focused on the one in that place -- is a decent one, and Japrisot neatly sketches out the characters and then their last hours, but ultimately he mostly doesn't flesh them out, or connect the stories, enough. Then, with the final witnesses, there's too much motion and commotion, with lots of back and forth, and too much explanation -- telling rather than showing. As if that weren't enough, a lot of it is over the telephone. All this might pass if Japrisot fleshed his scenes and characters out more, but he rushes to his resolution in all the wrong ways, the hurried -- but lengthy -- explanations no match for the tension of a murderer on their heels.
       The outline is very clever -- down to the undoing of a brilliant murder-plan that relied on there not being a motive by an unexpected motive -- but despite the thrilling potential of the witnesses being hunted down one by one, Japrisot can't quite manage his story's tension, making for an uneven read. So also the key character in the resolution -- a mystery stowaway who it takes a while to identify -- is rather annoying (and flighty), making for complications that feel more awkward than exciting -- the kind that work better in a film-adaptation than on the page.
       The basic idea behind the story is a clever one -- though also one that, half a century later, no longer seems so striking (contemporary readers likely guessed early on -- once her compartment-mates started going down -- just why Georgette was killed, as it's no longer a novel twist). Certainly, there was also more potential here -- especially with the doomed and threatened characters who had travelled with Georgette. Japrisot shows a fine touch when he takes his time with them -- "There was a hard candy with a strawberry center in her mouth, the taste of a kiss on her lips, and an empty box of matches in her hand" is a great introduction to the scenes featuring one of them -- and a bigger build-up around them would have made for a stronger work.
       As is, The Sleeping-Car Murders is a somewhat cramped but action-filled police procedural that offers reasonable thrills and satisfactions. It's good enough -- quite good, really -- but it also could have been a whole lot more.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 January 2020

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The Sleeping-Car Murders: Reviews: Compartiment tueurs - the film: Other books by Sébastien Japrisot under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Sébastien Japrisot (actually: Jean-Baptiste Rossi) lived 1931 to 2003.

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