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 fiancΓ© 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. πŸ˜‰

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Arlo Guthrie’s City of New Orleans.


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

28 responses to “And the Rhythm of the Rails is All They Dream*

  1. Margot, during the “Golden Age,” trains were often used as ways to establish (and, eventually to break) alibis. One of Dorothy L. Sayers’ classic Lord Peter Wimsey books, “The Five Red Herrings,” is quite ingenious about this. So was Freeman Wills Crofts, who wrote a number of mysteries in which trains played an important role – I remember, particularly, “Death of a Train.” And J. J. Connington wrote one (which I have not yet read) called “The Two-Ticket Puzzle,” which Sayers references in “The Five Red Herrings.” Personally, I love train travel, but it does pay to exercise some caution… πŸ˜‰

    Les Blatt

    • Les – I’m very glad you brought up this aspect of trains. There’s only so much room in any one post for a thorough discussion so I’m grateful to you for adding in this piece. I’ll confess to not having read the Connington either but yes, folks, do check out The Five Red Herrings for a case of trains being used that way. Oh, and you’ve reminded me Les of Agatha Christie’s fictional detective author Mr. Clancy who makes an appearance in Death in the Clouds AKA Death in the Air. He consults a Bradshaw to create an alibi and comes close to being accused of murder because of it. Yes, indeed, trains can be dangerous…

  2. I’m reading Strangers on a Train right now and it’s amazing how such a serious conversation can start on a train and it sound natural. I really am enjoying the story and psychological nature of it.

    • Clarissa – Trains are just a natural place for that kind of conversation aren’t they? I hope you enjoy Strangers on a Train. In my opinion it’s a really effective example of psychological crime fiction.

  3. Love this, a great theme. Detective stories on trains (like ones in educational establishments) make me happy… and you’ve really nailed it. My contribution is the book that became the Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes – it’s The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.

    • Moira – Why, thank you πŸ™‚ – I like that kind of story myself. And I’m with you about stories in the world of academia too. Thanks too for your suggestion. I’m familiar with The Lady Vanishes – a great film (but I’m a Hitchcock fan), but have yet to read the original White. Must do that now you’ve brought it up.

  4. I could certainly imagine a mystery set on today’s U.S. trains after taking the California Zephyr from Denver a few years ago. The delays along the way, especially when the air conditioning was turned off while we sat in the desert waiting for a freight train which had track priority, and other “tiny” annoyances could drive almost anyone to drink…or murder.

    Not me, of course. I was merely observing and making a list of potential victims and motives for future reference. πŸ˜€

    • Pat – Oh, I’m sorry to hear you had such a bad experience on the Zephyr! It sounds so frustrating and nerve-wracking. I could well imagine someone getting pushed to the limit in a situation like that. But as you say, such an excellent way to get “fodder” for writing… πŸ˜‰

  5. Thanks for this excellent post, Margot. You mention a number of my favourite novels, and I’m wondering if I’ve been unconsciously drawn to them because of my love of train travel now! Or perhaps trains are particularly fruitful when it comes to generating quality crime scenarios, as you argue (I travelled from London to Berlin recently and I reckon there’s plenty of scope for a great ‘Euro-train-crime-novel’ right there *scribbles*)

    • Mrs. P – Thanks so much for the kind words πŸ™‚ – I appreciate it. I like train travel too actually and in fact, whenever I travel by air I at least take the train from where I live to Los Angeles’ LAX airport just to get a “train fix.” My guess is that your love of train travel probably draws you to mysteries with that context but even that aside, they really are I think such ripe settings for a good juicy crime. I would love to see what you’d come up with in terms of a good “Euro-train-crime-novel.” I can well imagine all kinds of scenarios that could play out there. I hope you kept copious notes while you were en route. πŸ™‚

  6. kathy d.

    Oh, yes, trains are definitely a terrific location for a murder mystery. And, to add my kudos to one of my favorite all-time movies is The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock’s production. There is much to rave about in this film, including the two British citizens who jump into the action on the right side and the magnificent acting by all involved. Yet, I must rave about the fact that a major hero of the film is an elderly woman who transmits an important message to our side in the run-up to WWII.
    I’ve read some books with train locations or set in the aftermath of a train crash, another topic entirely. 1222 was a good read. Also, one of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brody books features a train crash.
    Love the train settings.

    • Kathy – I agree completely about The Lady Vanishes. Thanks for mentioning it. You’re quite right too that what people have to deal with in the aftermath of a train crash really is another topic entirely isn’t it? I could write dozens of posts about that. And about the Kate Atkinson novel, do you perhaps mean When Will There Be Good News?? That’s got a train crash as its focus. Thanks for bringing that one up too. πŸ™‚

  7. Agatha Christie was responsible for my earliest travel wishlist destinations – going to Egypt (which I’ve done) and riding the Orient Express (which I haven’t done) (yet). But I too love train-related murder mysteries – one of my favourites that you haven’t talked about here is Dick Francis’ The Edge which takes place on a Canadian cross-country train journey on which a horrid English horse owner is murdered while a pretend murder happens around him. Very meta! I also like Edward Marston’s Railway Detective series – set in the period when steam trains were just starting to be introduced into England and there is still much suspicion of them. Lots of good mysteries there.

    • Bernadette – Oh, I know what you mean about Agatha Christie’s work. One day I will go on the Orient Epxress too. Haven’t done it yet but the day ain’t over yet, so to speak. Thank you too for mentioning The Edge. You’ve rounded out my post very nicely with that one. As you say, it is very meta and honestly, Dick Francis could make just about any topic interesting. Thanks also for mentioning the Marston series. I’m not as familiar with that as I am with some other series but it’s definitely a terrific example of what I’m talking about here. Thanks.

  8. I think your is the first review I’ve read of ‘Baptism’ Margot. I have to say the thought of being stuck in an underground train doesn’t appeal at all. But I have the paperback travelling around with me at the moment so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the book.

    • Sarah – I hope you’ll enjoy Baptism. It’s a really interesting concept for a novel with some very clear and well-drawn characters. And Kinnings depicts very effectively what it would be like to be stuck underground like that.

  9. I love train travel. The train built Canada, or so the belief goes. I moved from the east coast to the west coast with my two young children and a dog on the train. Such a great way to see the country. I still take the train to Montreal from time to time, or from London, Ontario to as near to Perth, Ont. as I can get. I won’t go again without a roomette or berth – too old to sleep in those seats!
    Our company, Catchword Productions, that has been murdering for many years (27 I think) had a run on the trains quite awhile back. We took the train with out gang of actors from Halifax to Sackville, New Brunswick – just a short trip. We’d kill our first victim on the train and then carry on. We and our participants (about thirty I think) stayed overnight in the Marshlands Inn where another victim would be done in. Sunday morning the guests would figure out who did it and then we’d gaily get back on the train for a nice sleepy ride home. It was a bit tough figuring out ways to kill that first person as we were all in one open car – I think poison figured heavily and absolutely no guns! It is a version of the locked-door mystery I guess. I think the British do these so well because there is also the richness of the class distinctions on the train – not so in North America!
    Thanks for a wonderful post – I love those train mysteries and you did your usual outstanding job on presenting this notion!

    • Jan – Thanks for the kind words πŸ™‚ – *blush* And oh, how absolutely wonderful that you and your team did a train theme! So cool! I’ll bet that must have been so much fun for everyone. And you know, I love trains too. I haven’t taken quite as many train trips as you have, and certainly not as many long distance trips. But there really is something about trains… You’re right too that they built Canada. They built the U.S. too – a critical part of a lot of nations’ development I think.
      And about locked-room mysteries? Oh, they’re wonderful and I hadn’t thought about it but a “train murder” is an interesting variation on that theme.

  10. Ms. Kinberg, I’m glad you mentioned MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, one of my favourite AC books, and 4.50 FROM PADDINGTON, two train-related mysteries that occurred to me even as I began to read yet another novel post from your keypad. I was also going to mention THE EDGE by Dick Francis but Bernadette beat me to it.

    • Prashant – Aren’t those great novels?! I’m particularly pleased that Bernadette mentioned The Edge as I missed it out and it really is a terrific example of the kind of thing I had in mind.

  11. Well, you (and Kathy) have exhausted my knowledge of train-related crime stories – Angel’s Flight by Michael Connelly featuring a funicular/cable car type of vehicle rather than a “train proper”.

    So I thought of boats as another “sealed room” type of transport – eg Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith, Death of a Carpet Dealer by Karin Wallberg and Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg. There are one or two set on cruise ships I know, including I am sure at least one by Agatha Christie πŸ˜‰

    • Maxine – Oh good point about Angels Flight!!! And I missed that one out in this post so thank for filling in the blank. You’re so right about cruise ships too. All of the examples you’ve mentioned are really excellent portraits of murder-on-board and that does have about it the ‘locked room’ feeling. Erm – and about Agatha Christie? Yeah, Death on the Nile is an example of what you mean. πŸ˜‰

    • Margot and Maxine:

      If you want to extend it to cruise ships (or just ships), I would have to point to two classic “impossible crime” books by John Dickson Carr. In “The Blind Barber,” there is a murder on board a ship. The body disappears. Nobody is missing. In “Nine – and Death Makes Ten,” (a Carter Dickson book), a shipboard murderer leaves a bloody thumbprint next to the body – but the print doesn’t match up with anybody on board…

      (Now tell me I didn’t just add a couple of titles to your “TBR” piles… πŸ˜‰

      • Les – Thanks very much for both of those Dicksons. Both sound extremely intriguing. And about my TBR list? Well let’s just say I am not going to let my credit card company know about your suggestions…. πŸ˜‰

  12. It’s only been very recently that I have traveled on a train again. I actually really enjoyed the experience. I usually drive everywhere, no matter how long the journey, but I found taking the train extremely relaxing. In fact one of my bucket list items is to have dinner aboard the Orient Express!

    I can see how it would work in crime fiction so well though, particularly on long journeys when people relax a little more than a commuter trip and start striking up conversations. I loved Murder On The Orient Express. Agatha Christie was my staple crime fiction as a young teenager though.

    • Rebecca – Oh a trip on the Orient Express is on my bucket list too! And yes it really is a good scenario I think for crime fiction. There are so many opportunities for strangers to interact or even for people who know each other to have a falling out or something. Lots of “fodder” for the crime fiction pen. πŸ˜‰

  13. Pingback: Baptism Crime Blog Round-up | Max Kinnings

  14. Pingback: Baptism Reviews (August) | Max Kinnings

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