Murder on the Orient Express? No, it's murder on the sleeper from Cornwall
Sarah Pitt talks to novelist Emily Barr about her first-ever thriller, set on the Penzance to London sleeper train.
When Emily Barr discovered the joys of the overnight sleeper train from Penzance to London Paddington, she couldn't resist setting her next novel on board.
And with an affair, a murder and a disappearance all taking place on the Night Riviera train, Emily's thriller presents a more exciting picture than your average rail journey.
No wonder train operator First Great Western is clamouring to stock The Sleeper in the lounge car of the sleeper train, the scene for encounters between femme fatale Lara Finch and her lover Guy Thomas. It'll probably do wonders for sales of their tipple of choice, gin and tonic, too.
There are, in fact, two night trains: one that leaves Paddington for Penzance overnight and another that does the route in the opposite direction, travelling through the darkened countryside to arrive at Paddington just as the capital is waking up and going to work.
Emily is just one of many fans of the service, which allows weekly commuters to hold on to better-paid work in the capital, while their families remain Westcountry-based.
"I had lived down here for quite a while without realising that the sleeper train even existed," says the 41-year-old author, who lives in Falmouth with her husband and three children.
"I would always be desperately trying to throw my children into school and rush for the train to get to late lunches with my editor in London.
"Then I suddenly realised I could cover all that distance by night, arrive first thing in Paddington and be completely in control of the day."
And, getting chatting to the staff on the train on her trips, she learned about some of the shenanigans that went on on-board, with extra-marital affairs blossoming despite the narrowness of the beds in the cabins, really only suitable for one person.
"I started hearing all these stories, including one about a woman who was having an affair, and everyone on the train knew about it. I thought there has got to be a novel here," laughs Emily.
The Sleeper is a bit of a departure for Emily, albeit written with her trademark tightly-plotted brio, because it is her first true detective thriller.
And, as such, she's had to undertake a fair bit of research, including enlisting the help of a friendly policeman, the husband of a friend, in Falmouth.
"He was just brilliant," she says. "He was incredibly patient with all my very unlikely scenarios, trying to work out a way they would be possible. I had to take him out of the credits, though, because he does quite a lot of under cover work." He helped her achieve the ring of authenticity, as she set Devon and Cornwall Police detectives busy investigating the discovery of a body of a man on the sleeper train when it arrives in Penzance one Saturday morning – the same train from which property developer Lara, on her way back after a week working away, has completely vanished.
The man stabbed to death on the train turns out to be Lara's lover Guy Thomas, and initially the finger of suspicion is pointing at the absent woman. One person who doesn't believe this, though, is Lara's friend Iris, who sets off to find out what really happened on board.
Part one of the novel is narrated by Lara, and the reader learns all about her boredom with her besotted but dull husband Sam in Falmouth – the real motivation for her seeking an exciting job in London – her delight at the freedom of getting on the night train every Sunday night with the other regulars, and falling, with the aid of quite a few gin and tonics over quite a few weeks, into an illicit affair with married man Guy. After Lara disappears, the story is taken up by Iris, who one Saturday morning decides to break her rather hermit-like existence to call on Laura, with whom she has established a tentative friendship. Instead, she is confronted by Lara's distraught husband, beside himself that his wife has not appeared off the night train to spend the weekend with him as they planned.
Having two main female characters, says Emily, was a plot device to appease her editors over the disappearance of her heroine half way through the book.
"I really wanted to have the first character, Lara, disappear off the train, and for the reader to be left wondering what had happened to her," she says. "I had to fight quite hard with my editors over that, though, because editors don't like main characters to just vanish halfway through a book."
Iris's determination to investigate Lara's disappearance sees her leave her hermit's existence in a cottage in the wilds of Cornwall to head to London, where she confronts a tragedy from her own past.
With help from DC Alex Zielowski, a Falmouth policeman with whom she kindles a bit of a spark, she travels to Thailand, drawn by revelations about her perfect friend's less than perfect drug smuggling past.
"The smuggling bits were set back when I was travelling myself in Thailand, although I didn't do any smuggling myself!" says Emily.
"And back in the day, I wrote an piece about people in jail in Bangkok, so it was easy to go back to that."
Emily, a former Guardian journalist, started her novel-writing career after she took off on a round the world trip in the mid-1990s, which inspired her first novel Backpack. She's not been able to resist putting exotic locations in her novels ever since.
With The Sleeper, though, much of her research has been done a bit closer to home. There's even a Western Morning News journalist among the media scrum which confronts Iris when she goes to talk to Guy Thomas's widow at her home near Land's End.
And Emily drew on the expertise of a friend who used to work in property development in London to give authenticity to the job which Lara flees to in London.
Writing the book has been "really fun", she says... "It is my first proper crime one, so I have enjoyed that, inserting clues," she says.
The Sleeper by Emily Barr is published by Headline, price £7.99. Emily will be talking about crime writing with two other crime writers, at Dolly's Tea Room in Falmouth on Thursday, September 19, as part of the town's Splash! festival. Tickets are £6 from the Falmouth Bookseller on 01326 312873.