Category Archives: Max Kinnings

You’re Saying I’m Fragile*

FragileOne of the ways that authors keep the reader’s interest is by developing characters in sometimes unexpected ways. For example, a character may seem quite fragile on the surface, but as the story evolves, we learn that the character has strengths that we didn’t realise. There’s always a risk with that, of course, because a character who seems to change too abruptly or who acts too much ‘out of character’ isn’t believable. But discovering hidden strength under surface-level fragility can make a character all the more interesting.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links for instance, Hercule Poirot receives an urgent letter from Paul Renauld, an ex-pat Canadian who now lives in France. Renauld’s letter refers to threats on his life, and he makes it clear that he wants Poirot to come to France immediately. Poirot and Hastings go to the small  town of Merlinville-sur-Mer, but by the time they get there it’s too late. Renauld has been stabbed and his body found on a golf course being built near the villa where he lived. As you might expect, the police and Poirot interview people who might have seen something or who might have known the victim. So one of their stops is the villa nearest the Renauld home. In that villa lives Marthe Daubreuil, who is the fiancée of Renauld’s son Jack. When they first meet her, Marthe seems fragile and vulnerable. Poirot even calls her

 

‘…a girl with anxious eyes.’

 

But as the story evolves and we learn more about her, we find that Marthe has quite a lot of strength in her.

In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Minotaur, Kerstin Kvist accepts a position as a private nurse at Lydstep Old Hall, the home of the Cosway family. She’s hoping that the move from her native Sweden to England will allow her to spend more time with her lover Mark Douglas. Her job at the Cosway’s home will be the care of thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. Kvist settles into her job, but soon finds that this is no ordinary family. For one thing, the family seems to live and behave as though it were still the Victorian Era. For another, John Cosway is kept heavily medicated on orders from his mother, the family matriarch. After a short time Kvist begins to suspect that the heavy medication is detrimental to her patient so without telling anyone, she begins to withhold it. That decision has tragic consequences that she couldn’t have imagined. As the novel evolves and Kvist gets to know her patient, so does the reader. And although he seems very fragile on the surface – he is a mental patient after all – we learn that there are depths and strengths to his character. He turns out to be quite surprising in his way.

In Shona (S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, we meet grammar school undermaster Alexander Seaton, a former candidate for the pulpit who left the ministry under a cloud of scandal. Since that time, Seaton has tried to stay ‘under the radar,’ taking on a humble job and trying to stay out of trouble. In many ways he’s quite fragile, although not physically so. Then his good friend Charles Thom is accused of murdering local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson. Thom claims he’s innocent and begs Seaton to clear his name. Seaton agrees and starts to ask questions about the murder. Bit by bit he’s drawn more and more into the investigation. And, trite as it may sound, that process requires him to find strength within himself that he didn’t know he had.

Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride) introduces us to Gunder Jormann, who lives in the small Norwegian town of Elvestad. He’s not the world’s quickest thinker, but he’s a steady worker and has never been in trouble. His sister Marie has always looked after him and in that sense he seems fragile on the surface. Then he decides to do something no-one expected. He decides he would like to get married. He’s no longer a young man, but he’s still in decent physical shape and he has a steady income, so he doesn’t think his marital prospects are hopeless. As if that weren’t surprising enough, he decides to go to Mumbai to find a wife. At first, Marie is against the idea. But when she sees that her brother is determined, she reminds him of all of the details that are involved in international travel. Things start to change when Jormann actually gets to Mumbai. There, he surprises even himself by his ability to get used to being in a totally different environment. He’s successful at finding a wife, too. She is Poona Bai, whom Jormann met when he started going to the restaurant where she works. Within a short time, he has persuaded Poona to marry him and move to Norway. She has to finish up the details of her life in India, so Jormann goes back to Elvestad first, with the understanding that his bride will follow him. On the day of her arrival though, Jormann’s sister is involved in a terrible auto accident and he can’t leave her side. So he asks a friend to meet Poona at the airport. When the two miss each other, Poona continues on towards Elvestad, but never makes it to Jormann’s home. When her body is later discovered in a field near Elvestad, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. Throughout the novel it’s interesting to see the solid strength of Jormann’s character show beneath his superficial fragility.

Max Kinnings’ Baptism is the story of George Wakeham, a London Underground driver for the Northern Line. He’s by no means weak-willed, but in some ways he’s quite fragile. He’s always wanted to do something creative with his life – something that would have a lasting impact. But although he was part of a band and tried writing as well, he hasn’t felt he succeeded. In that sense he’s quite insecure. Still, he has a stable marriage, two healthy children and a steady job. Then one morning, three people invade his home and take his family as prisoners. They tell Wakeham that if his family is to live, he must do exactly as they say. They give him a special mobile ‘phone which they will use to instruct him, and tell him to report for work as usual, making sure to do everything he is told. With no other option, Wakeham goes to his duty station and takes his place in the cab of his train. The hostage-takers board the train as well, with his family in tow. Then, in the middle of a tunnel, he is ordered to stop the train. Now Wakeham learns to his horror why he was targeted and what the hostage-takers want. In the meantime, DCI Ed Mallory and his team have been alerted to the hostage situation. Mallory is an experienced negotiator, so he tries to work with the hostage-takers to find out exactly what they want. Meanwhile Wakeham works to keep himself and his family alive, and to try his best to protect the 400 passengers on the train. In that process we see that he has a lot of strength that he didn’t know he had.

Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is the central focus in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Durga has been temporarily placed in a prison because she is under suspicion for having committed multiple murders. One night, thirteen members of her family were poisoned. Some were stabbed as well, and the house was burnt. Durga has survived, but she won’t talk about that night. It looks very much as though she somehow ‘snapped’ and is guilty of the crimes. However, there are clues that instead, she was bound and raped, so she may be a victim herself. The only way to find out what really happened is to get Durga to talk, so social worker Simran Singh is asked to travel from her home in Delhi to the Punjab town of Jullundar to help. Simran knows the town well, since she was brought up there, and it is hoped that she’ll be able to break through Durga’s ‘wall of silence.’ Slowly and piece by piece, Simran finds out about the Atwal family, about Durga’s life there, and about some very dark secrets that the well-to-do family had hidden. As the novel evolves, we see that although Durga seems quite fragile on the surface (and in some ways, she really is), she is actually much stronger and more resilient than it seems.

When characters seem one way on the surface, but turn out to have different sorts of depths to them, this can make them all the more interesting. And that’s part of what keeps readers turning and clicking pages. This post only gives me enough space to mention a few examples of fragile characters who turn out not to be so fragile. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Nicks’ Leather and Lace.

12 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Karin Fossum, Kishwar Desai, Max Kinnings, Ruth Rendell, Shona MacLean

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Locomotives

railroadsThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme tour is rolling along down the tracks to our next station. Today we’ve reached the twelfth stop on our terrifying tour, the historic old town of Lville. Thanks as ever to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for such a terrific itinerary. This Old West town was built around a railroad stop and we’re all looking forward to exploring the General Store, the Saloon and lots more. Right now though everyone’s unpacking and changing into jeans and boots, so while they do, let me offer my contribution for this week: locomotives.

We may think of locomotives and the trains they’re attached to as very useful forms of transportation and really, they are. But the fact is, trains are dangerous. They’re large and fast and it’s all too easy to fall (or be pushed) off the platform beneath them. But for a murderer, using a train to help a victim into the next world can be quick and efficient. A hard shove onto the tracks and that’s all it takes. And sometimes, you don’t even need the locomotive itself to do the job.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we meet Anne Beddingfeld, who’s recently lost her beloved father. Alone in the world and with nothing in particular keeping her in London, Anne is eager for adventure. She gets a lot more than she bargained for one day when she happens to be at an underground station. To her horror a man falls from the platform onto a live track. He’s pulled off the rails but is almost immediately pronounced dead. Anne is upset at what she’s witnessed, but she is curious about a piece of paper that was in the dead man’s pocket and has fallen to the ground. The paper turns out to specify the sailing date of the Kilmorden Castle, bound for Cape Town. Unable to resist the lure of adventure, Anne books passage on the ship and soon finds herself mixed up in a case of stolen gems, murder and a mysterious crime leader called The Colonel.

Charlotte MacLeod’s The Withdrawing Room begins when Sarah Kelling turns her family’s Boston brownstone into a boarding house. She’s recently been widowed and this is the best way for her to make ends meet, but she decides to be very particular about the boarders she admits. Soon enough, she has a group of suitable boarders and prepares to open for business. One of the new residents is Barnwell ‘Barney’ Augustus Quiffen, who turns out to be thoroughly annoying. He’s demanding, complains about everything and makes life difficult for everyone, including Sarah Kelling. What’s worse, he’s nosey and judgemental. Ten one day Quiffen is killed in what seems to be a horrible accident when he apparently falls under a subway train. No-one is exactly mourning Quiffen’s death, but the next morning, a homeless woman calling herself Mary Smith visits the boarding house and tells Sarah that she saw someone push Quiffen under the train. Sarah has to become involved in the investigation now, as the police begin to suspect that someone there may have murdered the victim.

Emma Bowles comes far too close for comfort to the business end of a locomotive in Ed McBain’s Kiss. She’s waiting on a platform for an uptown train when a strange man shoves her off the platform and onto the tracks. She manages – barely – to scrabble her way back onto the platform just before an oncoming train arrives but it’s a near miss. Then she narrowly avoids being killed in a hit-and-run incident. It’s now clear that someone has targeted Emma Bowles. Her husband Martin hires a private investigator Andrew Darrow to protect her and find out who’s trying to kill her. Then, there’s a murder and when the body is discovered, Detective Steve Carella and his team connect the victim with the Bowles case.

In Kerry Greenwood’s Murder on the Ballarat Train, Phyrne Fisher and her companion Dot Williams take a train journey to Ballarat. Late one night they along with the other passengers are overcome with chloroform. Phryne breaks out a window and the chloroform dissipates, but there’s worse to come. It’s discovered that fellow passenger Anne Henderson is missing. Her body is later discovered near the tracks and it’s clear that she was thrown from the train. The other passengers were drugged to prevent their interfering. Anne’s daughter Eunice asks Phryne to find the killer, but it turns out to be not as simple a case as it appears on the surface.

A locomotive turns out to be very dangerous in Max Kinnings’ Baptism. George Wakeham is a driver for the Northern Line of the London Underground. One morning he’s preparing to leave for work when three intruders break in, seizing his wife and children. Wakeham’s only chance of keeping his family alive is to follow exactly the instructions he is given. The intruders give him a mobile ‘phone for receiving their instructions and when he arrives at work, they order him to proceed to the cab of his train and start driving. The hostage-takers also board the train with Wakeham’s family and their leader joins Wakeham in the cab. When the train, which now has over 400 passengers, enters a tunnel, Wakeham is suddenly ordered to stop. Wakeham soon learns to his horror why the hostage-takers chose him and what their plans for the train are. Now he’ll have to try to do his best to keep his passengers alive. In the meantime, hostage negotiator DCI Ed Mallory is assigned to try to find out what the abductors want and salvage the situation if he can.

Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit begins when paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill are called to the scene of a motor accident. The driver, Marko Meixner, is unhurt but the two paramedics insist on taking him to hospital for an evaluation. Meixner warns them that he’s in danger and they will be too if they spend any time with him. At first they think his reaction is because he has psychological problems; in fact, they want him to have a psych evaluation. But Meixner leaves the hospital abruptly. Later that same day, he is pushed from a train platform and killed by an oncoming train. Detectives Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare are called to the scene of the death and begin their investigation. As it turns out, Meixner had every reason to be afraid for his life.

So you see? Locomotives power trains, which is a good thing. They also can power murder – not such a good thing. Now, how about we take a walk over to the old railroad station? There’s a lovely view from the platform… ;-)

22 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte MacLeod, Ed McBain, Katherine Howell, Kerry Greenwood, Max Kinnings

And in the Middle of Negotiations You Break Down*

NegotiationsIf you think about it, just about every relationship we have involves at least some negotiation. It can be as simple as ‘What should we do about dinner?’ or as complex as, ‘Under what terms will your country establish a treaty with ours?’ A lot of people associate negotiation with adversarial relationships and of course sometimes that happens. But negotiation isn’t always bitter and angry. It’s really just the search for common ground. Negotiation is an important part of communication and it certainly plays a role in real-life and crime-fictional investigations. There’s negotiation among different agencies involved. There’s negotiation in an investigation team to determine who will do what and which direction the investigation will take. And when it comes to prosecution of crime there’s a great deal of negotiation among the opposing counsels and the judge or equivalent and that’s just scratching the proverbial surface of legal negotiation. We see this quite a lot in crime fiction, so I couldn’t possibly mention all of the examples of it in this post. I know I’ll be leaving a lot out, so do add your own examples.

We see a few different kinds of negotiation in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. In that novel, Hercule Poirot works with Scotland Yard and local police to solve a series of murders that look like the work of a psychopath. That co-operation in itself involves negotiation in terms of who actually follows up on what and who will be involved in which part of the investigation. The killings begin with the murder of an elderly shopkeeper/newsagent. Her husband is the most likely suspect but Poirot received a cryptic warning before the killing that’s unlikely the work of the chief suspect. The police are just getting to work on that murder when Poirot receives another letter. Then there’s another death. And a third. At one point, Franklin Clarke, brother of the third victim, suggests that a group of friends and relations – ‘interested parties’ – of all three murder victims work together to try to come up with a strategy to catch the killer or at least a clue as to who that person is. In the conversations the group has, we see them negotiate what is important and what isn’t, and what should be done. Those conversations turn out to be very useful to Poirot as he eventually ties the murders together and finds out who the killer is.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we meet DI Alan Banks, who in this novel has recently moved to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He’s arrived in time to face some unpleasant situations. First, there’s been a series of house-breakings that have many of the residents worried. Also a voyeur has been making the lives of several of Eastvale’s women miserable and frightening. Then there’s a murder. As Banks and his team work to find out what’s behind all of these incidents, we see a lot of negotiation going on. For instance, Banks is in charge of the investigation so technically he’s the one who should direct it. However, he’s an ‘incomer,’ having recently moved from London. He knows that the locals don’t entirely trust him and he knows that he doesn’t know the histories of the people in the area. For that he has to depend on his second-in-command Sergeant Hatchley, who’s a local. So the direction the investigation takes involves negotiation between the two. It’s not always peaceful but it’s productive. As another thread in this story, local feminist Dorothy Wycombe has made a very public set of complaints that the police are sexist and are not doing all they can to catch the voyeur. Banks knows that to dismiss her entirely will lead to a media furor he doesn’t need. Besides, he agrees that the peeping is wrong and must be stopped. On the other hand, it’s clear that she doesn’t have a real appreciation for the time, money and staff required to do what she wants done. Working matters out with her (and they never exactly do become friends) takes a lot of negotiation.

Stefan Tegenfalk’s Project Nirvana begins with the deaths of four German scientists. German police authorities believe that Swedish national Leo Brageler may be involved in the deaths, but there isn’t a clear motive. So they request help from the Swedish National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). The NBI works with police detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge of Stockholm County CID and their team to track down Brageler and get some answers. All of this communication among law-enforcement entities involves quite a lot of negotiation. There’s the question of who gets access to what information, who does exactly what and who has jurisdiction. Then matters get even more complicated. Brageler and another possible suspect (also a Swedish national) disappear. And, the Swedish Security Service (SÄPO) starts to take a serious interest in the case. Then there’s a frightening hostage situation – another instance in which negotiation plays a major role. All of these events are related, and they’re tied to something much bigger than someone killing a few scientists.

And of course, hostage negotiation is a very important thread running through other crime fiction too. In fact, it’s a major part of Max Kinning’s Baptism. London Underground train driver George Wakeham is a former musician and writer who always wanted to make a real impact on society. That hasn’t happened though and he’s currently driving for the Northern Line. One morning his predictable life is shattered when three strangers invade his home and capture his wife and children. His family’s only chance, so Wakeham is told, is to do exactly as the hostage-takers say. He’s given a mobile ‘phone and told to go to his job as usual and follow all instructions as they are telephoned to him. Wakeham does so and soon finds out what the people who’ve taken his family want. They want to capture everyone on his train – about 400 people – and they need his driving skills to get the train into the tunnel where they intend to trap everyone aboard it. DCI Ed Mallory, who is a skilled hostage negotiator, is called in to find out exactly why the hostage-takers have captured these people and what exactly they want. Part of the tension in this novel comes from the interactions among Mallory, Wakeham and Tommy Denning, who’s leading the hostage-takers. Another source of tension in this novel is the negotiation between Mallory, who has one view of what ought to be done, and his superiors, who have another. In the end, that negotiation is part of what leads to the way Mallory and his team deal with this crisis.

And then there’s the negotiation that PI Jayne Keeney conducts in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar. Keeney lives and works in Bangkok, but travels north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. Then de Montpasse’s partner Nou is murdered. Shortly afterwards de Montpasse himself is shot. The official report is that de Montpasse killed his partner and then violently resisted arrest when the police came to confront him with the evidence. Keeney is certain that’s not true though and begins to look into the matter. She soon learns that these two murders are tied in with a truly ugly case of corruption, child trafficking and the Thai sex trade. Keeney knows that she can’t stop the corruption and sex trade single-handedly, much as she would like to. The one thing she does want though is for de Montpasse’s name to be cleared. He wasn’t a murderer and she wants that to be made public. Once she finds out the real truth behind the murders, she feels she’s in a position to negotiate. I don’t think it’s giving away spoilers to say that her exchanges with the people who are on ‘the other side of the table’ in this case show how negotiation works in the real world.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the many fine legal mysteries and thrillers that involve negotiation among parties. That’s in part because there are so many of them; that would be a post in and of itself. But I do want to at least mention that negotiation is a critical part of these novels, as it is in real-life legal cases.

Most of know that almost any interaction with another person involves at least a little negotiation. Sometimes it’s low-stakes; sometimes it’s high-stakes. Always it’s interesting and it can add a solid level of tension to a crime novel.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ You Never Give Me Your Money.

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Max Kinnings, Peter Robinson, Stefan Tegenfalk

In The Spotlight: Max Kinnings’ Baptism

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. In the past few decades, the thriller sub-genre has broadened its scope so that now there are many different kinds of thrillers. Although they have in common the tension buildup, the pacing and the suspense that characterise the sub-genre, they’re also increasingly diverse. Today let’s buckle ourselves in for the ride and take a closer look at the thriller. Let’s turn the spotlight on Max Kinnings’ Baptism.

The novel begins when Tommy Denning and his twin sister Belle leave Madoc Farm, a monks’ retreat and the seat of an Evangelical Christian group in Snowdonia. With them is Simeon Fisher, who also lives at Madoc Farm. Not long after they leave, we learn that their destination is the home of George Wakeham, a London Underground train driver. Wakeham has always wanted to make something of himself creatively; he played bass in a band called Crawlspace, he wanted to write, and he wanted to somehow make a real impact. That hasn’t happened for him though and now he drives for the Northern Line.

One morning, Wakeham is getting ready to leave for work when three hostage-takers break into his house and capture his family. Wakeham himself is told to go to his job and follow every instruction he gets through a special mobile ‘phone he is given; otherwise his family will die. With no other option he does as he’s told and soon takes his place in the driver cab of his train. Tommy and Belle Denning and Simeon Fisher, who are the hostage-takers, board the train as well and it’s not long before Wakeham finds out to his horror why he and his family were targeted. The hostage-takers intend to capture everyone on the train and they needed Wakeham’s driving skills to trap the train in an underground tunnel.

When word of the captured train gets out, DCI Ed Mallory is assigned to try to communicate with Denning and the other hostage-takers to find out what they want and what they intend. Mallory is a skilled hostage negotiator who has a special ability to sense subtleties in people’s voices and manner; he was blinded in a previous hostage-taking incident so he depends on his other senses to help him establish contact with hostage-takers and try to open up lines of communication with them.

As Mallory and the police work to find out who the terrorists are and what their plans are, George Wakeham does his best to stay alive and to keep his family and the train passengers alive too. What they all discover is that the terrorists have a very specific goal. The key to saving the passengers is finding out as much as possible about Tommy Denning, as they way he thinks and what he wants is crucial.

This is a thriller, so there is a very strong element of pacing, timing and action in this novel. There is also an element of psychological tension as Wakeham, Mallory and Denning work to outwit and outthink one another. We see this for instance in the driver-cab scenes between Denning, who’s taken up position there, and Wakeham, who’s trying to keep everyone, including himself, safe.  We also see it as Mallory tries unsuccessfully to convince the authorities to take a certain course of action to free the train. Many (‘though certainly not all) thrillers contain violence and Baptism shows its colours as a thriller in that way too. Readers who prefer to avoid a lot of violence will be disappointed (or may want to peek through their fingers at some points in the novel).

The characters of Ed Mallory and George Wakeham are important elements in this novel too. Wakeham is an ordinary man who always wanted to be extraordinary, but doesn’t realise just how extraordinary he can be. He has to find courage he never thought he had and it’s interesting to see how his perceptions of what he is and ought to be change as the novel goes on. For his part, Mallory has plenty of personal baggage, especially regarding the case that left him blind. He has to deal with the fact that a hostage died during that negotiation and that now, the person in the best position to help free the train captives is that dead hostage’s widower. That said though, Mallory isn’t a stereotypical haunted cop. He deals with his life the best he can and it’s not hard to be on his side and Wakeham’s as they try to stop Denning.

One of the other elements that runs through this novel and adds to the tension is the sense of fear and claustrophobia as the train passengers realise that they’ve been trapped and try to escape. We get a real sense of what that might be like, and the passengers’ reactions are realistic. That tension builds as we discover exactly what the hostage-takers plan to do.

Although we know very quickly who the terrorists are, we don’t know at first much about them or exactly what they want. Nor do we know how and why they chose to capture train passengers and why they chose George Wakeham’s train. That information is revealed little by little as the novel evolves. Readers who dislike ‘information dumping’ will be pleased that backstories and other details are given as they’re relevant. The story is told from different points of view, and we see the hostage-taking play out from different characters’ perspectives. Readers who prefer one consistent point of view will be disappointed. But it’s clear throughout the novel whose point of view is being shared and Kinnings’ use of multiple perspectives allows us to see what’s happening on the train, in the driver cab, on ‘the outside’ and so on.

Baptism is a modern thriller with an innovative setting and some very high stakes. It features the sympathetic characters of George Wakeham and Ed Mallorty and plays out with the fast pace, tension and action that keep the story moving along. But what’s your view? Have you read Baptism? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday 1 October/Tuesday 2 October – One Coffee With – Margaret Maron

Monday 8 October/Tuesday 9 October – The Sins of the Fathers – Lawrence Block

Monday 15 October/Tuesday 16 October – Raven Black – Ann Cleeves

12 Comments

Filed under Baptism, Max Kinnings

And the Rhythm of the Rails is All They Dream*

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.

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Holt, Max Kinnings, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell