A mystery novel in a model railroading setting? Who could resist?
Murder to Scale, by Debra B. Schiff “with” Mike Blumensaadt, is a good enough story in which the setting plays a major role, not just a background part. When I first saw it, I figured that it would be a super-geeky book of no literary value, but it would still be fun to read its quick 192 pages. My prediction turned out to be somewhat unfair: the beginning does indeed contain too many technical details, but in general the author(s) have paid attention to all the appropriate novelistic issues, such as plot, characterization, conflict, setting, pace, suspense, and so forth. You can certainly read it as a straight mystery novel without having to have any particular interest in or knowledge of model railroading. There’s no way that you’re going to conclude that Murder to Scale is a great work of literature or even just a great mystery, but you’ll enjoy it; it’s better than what a similar book written by, say, a strong high-school student would be.
I do have one complaint about the way the author(s) handled the technical details, exemplifying a problem that often pops up in any work of fiction that relies on such details: how do you (the author) convey geeky information without didactic exposition? Schiff and Blumensaadt could have done a better job here. Authors have several options: use footnotes; embed it in conversation between two characters, one of whom is explaining to the other; give in and just settle for didactic exposition. The first seems odd in a novel, the second can be awkward and unconvincing, and the third can make the reader think that they’re attending a class rather than reading a story. So you can’t win. In my experience as a reader, the best solution is to adopt the second option but bury it seamlessly in the dialog so that it’s plausible. Unfortunately that’s not what happens here. Here are two examples:
Bill had already placed his 2-8-0 locomotive on the far side of the track. (Steam locomotives are classified by the Whyte notation system. The first number is the leading wheels; the second, the driving wheels; and the third, the number of wheels on the trailing end of the locomotive.)
Yes, I know that a footnote would seem odd, but a lesson in parentheses is even odder. It’s not necessary; just leave it out!
And how about this one?
“I’m not sure whether to run DC or DCC-equipped trains.” (DCC users run their engines by using a digital controller that “speaks” to a decoder in each engine; DC, or direct current, works by providing current directly to the track.)
Awkward, isn’t it? Furthermore, I’m not going to nitpick, but there are a number of errors in the technical definitions throughout the book — surprising since the authors are both subject-matter experts even if not true novelists.
Finally, to end on a positive note, I was pleasantly surprised that the story confronts the stereotype that model railroaders are all old, spry, white, and male. There’s a realistic sprinkling of counterexamples, including a boy with autism, a man with Parkinson’s, and a woman with Alzheimer’s. Unlike the technical exposition, these matters are integrated seamlessly into the story and don’t feel obtrusive.