The Secret of the Night Train is the debut middle grade novel by Sylvia Bishop. The book has been thoroughly researched as Bishop alludes to in her acknowledgements paying testament to the guru of train travel, ‘the man in seat 61’. Having been on many a train journey around the world I can vouch for the ‘man in seat 61’ and his incredible website of all things trains related. I really value that the author has been on the journey that she has written about as it adds real authenticity to the narrative.
Eleven-year-old Max lives a typical life - school, family meals around the table, sitting in the attic staring out of the skylight, writing in her notebook and dreaming. Whilst she gazes out of the skylight into the wide open space she feels like she could do anything or go anywhere, but for Max this is just a dream. That is until a phone call from estranged Great-Aunt Elodie in Istanbul, and Max seizes the opportunity for an adventure aboard a train and the chance to leave France for the first time in her life. Equipped with her second-hand suitcase full of essentials and accompanied by her eccentric pot-plant-carrying chaperone, Sister Marguerite, Max is ready for adventure.
Whilst abroad the train Max learns of the theft of a one-of-a-kind diamond from a vault in Paris that she remembers seeing on the news. As the comforts of Paris quickly whizz past the window and Max struggles with homesickness, she imagines that she is a detective but as her anxieties worsen she realises that she is going to have to do some actual detecting if she really wants to take her mind off things. What starts as innocent role-play very quickly becomes real and Max finds herself in the middle of a heist, jewel thieves and undercover agents. As Max becomes increasingly excited at the thought of catching the jewel thief she finds herself in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse where no-one is as they appear and everyone seems to be playing their own game.
This is a cracking little read for any child who dreams of adventure and new experiences but can not overcome the knot in their stomach that stops them. The feelings of Max, or ‘mon lapin,’ will be particularly relatable to any child who has felt nervous or anxious about going on an overnight trip without their family - think school residential's, cub camps, etc. Having been on numerous trips where I have spent time away from loved ones I completely relate to Max even as an adult. Max has a familiar routine at home which she likes but also finds boring. She likes the idea of going away and experiencing something different but can’t shake her anxieties or worrying about feeling homesick. Torn between the excitement of going and afraid to leave, Max helps the reader to understand that these feelings are ‘normal’ and she is a great example of how we can grow as individuals and how experiences can change us in positive ways. Max learns how to deal with these feelings and in learning to manage her anxieties she gains in confidence and bravery. The read also promotes wanderlust. In a world where children can now experience the wonders of the world in their own home, Max’s adventures and experiences remind the reader that the world is a very big place and demands to be explored.
The book is is dotted throughout with cute illustrations by Marco Guadalupi. The map at the start is a personal favourite and I like the way that he captures each city in a simplistic yet unique way. I enjoyed the specific chapters for journeys between the different cities as it gives each train journey its own unique flavour. Through accurate geographical aspects, authentic trains and vivid descriptions of sights, sounds and smells, Bishop really gives the reader a taste of the culture of the different cities.
What makes a good mystery for me is one that has enough red-herrings and twists that make it a challenge to work out who the culprit is but not so many that it becomes confusing. Bishop has achieved this to perfection - think Agatha Christie, 'Murder on the Orient Express,' (minus the murder) for children. Ideally suited to amateur sleuths of 8+.