Friday, February 9, 2024


EVERYONE ON THIS TRAIN IS A SUSPECT by Benjamin Stevenson (Michael Joseph, Feb 2024)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When the Australian Mystery Writers' Society invited me to their crime-writing festival aboard the Ghan, the famous train between Darwin and Adelaide, I was hoping for some inspiration for my second book. Fiction, this time: I needed a break from real people killing each other. Obviously, that didn't pan out.

The program is a who's who of crime writing royalty: the debut writer (me!), the forensic science writer, the blockbuster writer, the legal thriller writer, the literary writer, the psychological suspense writer. But when one of us is murdered, six authors quickly turn into five detectives. Together, we should know how to solve a crime. Or commit one ... But how do you catch a killer, when all your suspects know how to get away with murder?

After a couple of solid mysteries to begin his oeuvre, Australian author and stand-up comedian Benjamin Stevenson hit an absolute grand slam with his startlingly clever and absolutely delightful third at-bat, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone. Stevenson gave himself a high degree of difficulty too, setting up his homage to classic mysteries with the narrator Ernie Cunningham, a ‘how-to’ writer turned recorder of events, outlining the fair play rules and Golden Age ‘Ten Commandments’ at the off, while even telling us on what pages deaths will occur. Like Houdini, Stevenson tied himself up, then proceeded to dazzle us with his sleight of hand and storytelling.

How do you follow-up a book like that, which delighted in longstanding tropes and genre ‘rules’, danced with meta while being brilliantly structured and told, and was both timeless and fresh?

Somehow, Stevenson has done it again with Everyone on This Train is a Suspect, a superb mystery that manages to surprise and delight even when we think we know how the game is played now. This time around Ernie has been invited to a unique crime writing festival, which will take place aboard the famous Ghan train from Darwin to Adelaide, slicing through the iconic Red Centre of Australia. A trip to celebrate 50 years of the Australian Mystery Writers’ Society. Rubbing shoulders with mystery writers, agents, editors, and keen readers, Ernie hope he may be inspired in some way for his stalled second book. It’s not so easy, he finds, to come up with fictional murders rather than just retelling the true stories from behind the scenes of his own family’s headline-grabbing violence.

He really doesn’t want to have to return his advance for an unwritten novel.

Ernie, the debut writer, is joined on the programme by authors of forensic science mysteries, legal thrillers, blockbuster bestsellers, psychological suspense, and even a noted literary author. A combustible mix. But when one of the writers is killed (obviously not Ernie, or how would he tell the tale? Fair play, after all), the other five turn into detectives trying to solve the crime.

Then again, with a whole group of people gathered who know lots of ways to commit and hide crimes, and how to get away with murder (at least fictionally), where does the danger truly lie?

Put simply, Everyone on This Train is a Suspect is sublime. It’s ridonkuously clever and brilliantly structured, with Stevenson demonstrating a Penn and Teller level of storytelling magic – giving away some of the secrets, showing you how a trick is done, yet still managing to surprise and amaze. There are lots of twists and turns, both in the mystery storyline and the relationships between characters, including Ernie and his amour Juliette, the former owner of the resort where the Cunningham family killings occurred. Juliette also wrote a book on those events, but chose to accompany Ernie on the Ghan trip even though she’s not on the festival programme herself.

There’s an unabashed playfulness, almost tongue in cheek, to Stevenson’s storyline and storytelling, where he’s both honouring and parodying classic Golden Age mysteries. Ernie offers clues along the way, such as the number of times he’ll mention the killer or killers’ name, updating the count at times for our benefit, and things once again get a little meta, while also being dosed with some high-octane action reminiscent of Western movies as the Ghan chugs through the Australian desert.

Along the way Stevenson seems to show us and his protagonist that death is not just a clever puzzle to solve - it has far greater impact than that. He does this via an extraordinarily clever puzzle, of course. It’s early on in the year, but Everyone on This Train is a Suspect may very well end up one of the best mystery reads of the year; a smile-inducing, brain-whirring magic trick, with heart.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer, editor, podcast host, and event chair. He's the founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, co-founder of Rotorua Noir festival, author of Macavity and HRF Keating Award-shortlisted non-fiction work SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, series editor of the DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER anthology, and writes about books for magazines and newspapers in several countries.

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