Night Train to Rigel‘s unusual premise sounds a little jokey, but Zahn plays it (mostly) straight: interstellar travel is accomplished with trains that travel along a sort of hyperspace railway. Frank Compton is an ex-intelligence agent who finds himself embroiled in one of those mysteries that’s bigger than it first appears, and which ultimately affords Zahn opportunities to play with a number of story-set-on-train devices, both of the whodunnit/whydunnit flavor and the derring-do/action flavor.
Zahn is clearly aware of the sources he’s riffing on — at one point Compton and his maybe ally/maybe femme fatale actually watch Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes — but two attributes of the novel save it from sinking into parody. The first is Compton’s narrative voice, which seems to be modeled on Hammett’s Continental Op. He’s quietly competent, eschewing the misogyny and personal demons of Chandler’s Marlowe, and Compton always takes his own situation seriously, even when Zahn’s tongue slips into his cheek. The second is that the unraveling mystery works fairly well in science fiction terms. (There’s a point where the seasoned SF reader may find a conclusion obvious well before light dawns on Compton, but on the other hand Zahn finds more-or-less credible explanations for some of the flimsier tropes of detective/espionage fiction that he borrows.)
Night Train to Rigel wraps up with a lump of exposition before a pair of predictable (if emotionally satisfying) set-pieces, a minor flaw in a novel that seems tailor-made for the description “ripping yarn.” There are two more novels in the series (although this one is complete in itself) and I look forward to reading them once I dig out of my soon-to-be-overdue library book pile.
needs more demons? no.