There’s something about trains that makes them really effective contexts for a crime fiction novel if you think about it. For one thing, all kinds of people are brought together on a train. That allows for a lot of possibilities for character development and interaction. Trains are one of those places where complete strangers – people who likely wouldn’t meet under other kinds of circumstances – end up sitting next to each other. Then too trains can be just a little claustrophobic and that can add to the tension in a story too. There’s also a certain kind of mystique about trains . Granted you might not think about the overcrowded and loud commuter train you may ride each day as having mystique, but trains have a fascinating history. They’ve been a critical part of travel, commerce and sociopolitical development for a long time so it’s natural that they play a role in crime fiction too.
One of the most famous train-related crime fiction novels is of course Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express AKA Murder in the Calais Coach. That novel is set aboard the world-famous Orient Express train that’s carrying wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett across Europe. On the second night of the journey Ratchett is stabbed. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same coach since it can be proven that no-one else on the train had access to Ratchett at the time of the murder. Hercule Poirot is on the same train en route to London and he agrees to investigate. As if the fact of murder weren’t enough, a snowstorm strands the train, making everyone even more nervous. Poirot discovers who committed the murder and as he investigates we get a real sense of what travelling by this train must have been like at the time the novel was written. I’ve read that Christie was inspired for this novel in part by a personal experience of being stranded briefly on a train (‘though not with a murderer on board). Oh, and there’s also Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!, in which Jane Marple solves a murder that her friend Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses while she’s riding on a train.
Another powerful train-related novel is Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. In this story Highsmith capitalises on the way in which trains bring together all sorts of disparate people. Guy Haines is on a cross-country train journey to visit his estranged wife Miriam. He’s hoping to convince her to give him a divorce. Charles Bruno is on the same train and he and Haines strike up a conversation. It’s not long before Haines feels comfortable enough to tell Bruno about his situation and in turn Bruno tells Haines that he himself has a bad relationship with his father. Bruno then makes a fantastic suggestion. He proposes that he and Haines each commit the other’s murder so to speak. His logic is that if Haines kills his father and he kills Haines’ wife, there will be no motive for the police to track down. So each will get away with murder. Haines agrees, thinking it’s all a joke. But Bruno is quite serious about it and murders Miriam. Then he begins to demand that Haines keep his end of the bargain. Now Haines is trapped into feeling obligated to commit a murder.
In Ruth Rendell’s Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, three women’s lives intersect as a result of the terrible 1999 train wreck near London’s Paddington Station. Both Zillah Leach and Minty Knox get the awful news that their partners have been killed in the crash. The third woman Fiona Harrington meets her fiancé Jeff as a result of the Paddington wreck. All three women discover that they were duped by the same good-looking con man when he too is ostensibly killed in the crash. One of the con man’s “marks” is not so ready to stand by and do nothing though and finds a way to take revenge.
Anne Holt’s 1222 brings together a varied group of passengers, all of whom are en route by train to Oslo. Then there’s a train crash in which only the conductor is killed. The passengers, including former police officer Hanne Wilhelmsen, are rescued and taken to a hotel to make other arrangements for getting to Oslo. Then there’s a murder. Wilhelmsen doesn’t want to get involved in the investigation; in fact, she’s not too keen on getting involved with people for any reason. But then there’s another death. And another. Wilhelmsen reluctantly puts her skills to use to find out who the killer is.
Max Kinnings’ Baptism tells the story of London Underground train driver George Wakeham. One morning Wakeham is caught in a nightmare when three hostage-takers break into his home and seize him and his family. Wakeham is ordered to go to his job as usual and follow all instructions that he is given by mobile ‘phone if he wants his family to survive. He gets to his duty station and into the driver’s cab of his train. Only then does he learn to his horror why he and his family were attacked. The hostage-takers plan to take his entire train captive. Terrified that he and his family will die, Wakeham follows the instructions he’s given and drives partway through a tunnel. That’s when the terrorists order him to stop the train. Hostage negotiator DCI Ed Mallory is called into action to communicate with the terrorists and somehow free not just the Wakeham family but also the more than 400 other passengers on the train. This novel, like others that feature trains, takes advantage of the claustrophia, the reality of being cooped up with strangers and the vulnerability to technology that train riders face to add to the suspense.
Trains are so much a part of a lot of people’s lives that we really don’t think about them very much, especially those of us who use them to commute. But as crime fiction shows us, trains can be quite dangerous. Have a pleasant journey.
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Arlo Guthrie’s City of New Orleans.