Publisher's Note:  

For a great detective, the best part of retiring is coming out of retirement.

Retired private detective and current seventh grader Steve Brixton has a new job: He takes out the trash for five bucks a week. But it’s hard to leave the old game behind, and on a train trip down the California coast, Steve and his best chum, Dana, are pulled into a mystery involving a fleet of stolen automobiles, a vanishing girl, and a phantom train car. Oh, and there might just be some romance….
     This laugh-out-loud mystery is a witty, modern-day companion to the adventures of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew that brims with humor and intrigue.

It Happened on a Train

by Mac Barnett

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Overall Review:  

Since I was on the look-out for mysteries, this book caught my eye. It’s the third book in the series, but like the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books, this series doesn’t need to be read in order.

As this third book in the series opens, seventh-grader Steve Brixton is throwing out his beloved Bailey Brothers mystery series now that he’s retired from the detective business. His life is now taken up with household chores, enduring his mother’s boyfriend, Rick, hanging out with his best friend, Dana—and Dana’s girlfriend, also named Dana.

Steve turns down a chance to help a surfer solve cryptic directions to a perfect place to surf, but when he ends up taking a train to a Model UN conference, Steve meets a girl in the dining car who then disappears from the train!

Steve decides she must be in the last car on the train, one that’s supposed to contain dangerous materials and that he’s told can’t be entered from the train.

Steve’s right—that’s where Claire is, and the train car turns out to belong to the fabulously wealthy Mr. Vanderdraak and his wife. It’s an old fashioned luxury train car complete with drawing room, gourmet kitchen, a sauna, and storage for Mr. Vanderdraak’s newest purchase, a rare classic car.

But Mr. Vanderdraak explains that his classic cars keep getting stolen, and that’s a mystery Steve can’t resist. Steve will be locked in the sauna; he’ll climb on the roof of the train; he’ll hide in the trunk of a car and not be able to get out. He’ll solve the mystery and decide he’s too young to retire from the detective business.

This breezy, lighthearted mystery has a number of characteristics I like: It’s a mystery without any fantasy elements (for those who don’t care for fantasy) and there’s no murder. Steve imagines he can "kayo" criminals like the Bailey Brothers do, but he doesn’t really know anything about fighting. He is, however, good at figuring things out. He keeps suggesting to Mrs. Vanderdraak and to Mr. Vanderdraak that they could solve their problems by talking about them. Although Steve’s friend Dana has a girlfriend, they don’t seem to do more than hang out together, and at the end, Claire agrees to be Steve’s girlfriend—presumably also to hang out together.

I didn’t like it that at two points in the story, Steve reads long passages from the Bailey Brothers’ books, and at another point in the story, he reads a long passage from a fantasy novel about wizards. These long passages just slow the story down, but they offer a chance to teach a teen or tween about the value of skimming! There’s also lots of risk taking, including walking on the roof of a train and hiding in the trunk of a car, though neither is portrayed as wise.

I wish the story got lively sooner—it’s episodic until the end of Chapter Eighteen (about page 91), when Steve realizes Claire has vanished from the train. From then on, the story moves forward at an exciting pace right through till the end.

Reading Level: 4.3, range 2.2-6.2.

Of interest to boys and girls.

This review has been acquired and adapted from

Content Analysis:  

This review was acquired from on May 15, 2014 and was not completed using Compass Book Ratings’ standardized checklist.  Nevertheless, it contains useful content information which is included here.  The overall number ratings have been approximated based on this information.

Mention of someone trying to kill Steve in previous book; surfer attacked by shark, description of being pulled into water, fearing he’ll drown; man has gun under his jacket; Steve looking for people with switchblades; mention of boys being kidnapped several times and shot at in previous books; Steve thinks he’ll have to fight some bad guys, wants Dana to help him; Steve tries to elbow someone who’s grabbed him from behind; mention of Icelandic fishing boats threatening to ram British battleships—in history; Steve believes someone tried to murder him by locking him in sauna; Steve talks several times about "kayo-ing" someone, knocking them out—doesn’t happen; Steve thinks of plan where thief will fall off roof of train; detective grabs Steve, "shoves him against the wall"; Claire attacks Mr. Vanderdraak when he tries to grab her; Steve kicks at mechanic, Dana gets on mechanic’s back, grabs his hair, digs knees into him; Steve kicks mechanic, throws sand in Mr. Vanderdraak’s hair; explosion, glass breaking, Mrs. Vanderdraak caused cars to blow up, building burns to ground.


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Alcohol / Drug Use:  

Claire says her uncle "sometimes drinks too much," has had "his license [as a private detective] suspended" because of it. (No drinking portrayed in book.)

Reviewed By CleanTeenReads
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