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… 😉


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

22 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Locomotives

  1. Sherlock Holmes would leap onto a train to go and solve crimes around England – in the Hound of the Baskervilles I think, and also The Copper Beeches, where he takes the train to my home town. And doesn’t he one time calculate the speed of the train by counting the interval when passing telegraph poles….? You can’t really imagine him driving a car, in my view, he is a man who belongs in trains and cabs….

    • Moira – Oh, I couldn’t agree with you more. And you’ve a good memory about the telegraph poles! Wasn’t that in Silver Blaze? And if I’m write, HOlmes knew the London train lines schedule better than just about anyone.

  2. Peter Reynard

    Nice word for L Margot. So much easier to let a 200 ton vehicle do the job instead of using knives and guns. You can’t even trace the murder weapon back to the killer. 🙂

    Also, wasn’t The Man in the Brown Suit one of Christie’s spy/thriller type novels or am I on the wrong track (pun intended!)?

    • Peter – *groan…* And yes, that is one of Christie’s thriller-type novels. Good memory! And you’re right, why not let the train do the job instead of getting your clothes bloody or having to remember gloves to your prints off the gun or something? 😉

  3. Margot, I love mysteries that involve trains. I don’t remember any novels where someone is killed by the train, but I read a couple that involved trains quite a bit. A Summer in the Twenties by Peter Dickinson, where a young man learns to drive a train for the General Strike of 1926. Also, The Sleeping Car Murders, by Sebastien Japrisot. A young woman is found dead in the sleeping car of the night train from Marseilles to Paris.

    • Tracy – There is just something about trains isn’t there? Such a sort of mystery/mystique that’s apart from the fact that they are very large and very effective weapons in and of themselves. Thanks for those two suggestions, too. I must add them to my list.

  4. There are so many classic examples here, Margot, that it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s Agatha Christie’s “4:50 From Paddington,” in which a woman witnesses a murder on a train – and nobody believes her until she gets Miss Marple involved in the case. In Margery Allingham’s “Death of a Ghost,” Albert Campion is almost done in by a well-timed shove on a railroad platform. And then there’s the train as an alibi-generator. We have that in Dorothy L. Sayers’ “The Five Red Herrings,” for example, not to mention the work of Freeman Wills Crofts, the master of what I’d call the railroad timetable alibi (in which, for example, the murderer could only have committed his crime on Tuesday or Thursay, as those were the only days at the 5:12 stopped at Ponsonby Junction). I guess it’s a sign of my enduring faith that I continue to enjoy train journeys, the perils notwithstanding!

    • Les – Oh, you have mentioned some absolutely classic examples of crime fiction where trains turn out to be awfully dangerous. You’re right that it’s hard to know exactly where to start. I had the same trouble myself when I was putting this post together…

  5. Somehow I have always enjoyed mysteries set on trains. A group of people detached for the time-being from the world outside, strangers mostly but at times, and significantly so, not. Besides Christie who seemed to have a real love for trains – Orient Express, 4: 50 from Paddington; Blue Train, there are Ethel Lina White with her The Wheel Spins and Crofts’ Sir John Macgill’s Last Journey. And one of my favourites, Innes’ Appleby’s End starts in a train with Appleby travelling with a remarkable family.

    • Neeru – A train context really is fascinating isn’t it? As you say, a group of disparate strangers, all brought together in one place. And you’re right that Christie writes about that a lot. Oh, and thanks for your other suggestions. I must check out the Lina White, which I’ll confess I’ve not (yet) read.

  6. One I will always remember is Murder On The Orient Express and the classic James Bond film From Russia With Love. 🙂

    • Scott – Oh, yes! From Russia With Love is most definitely a film with a terrific ‘train’ angle. And I came very close to including Murder On the Orient Express when I put this post together. Thanks for mentioning it for me.

  7. kathy d.

    My all-time favorite movie centered around a train is Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Everything happens on a train — kidnapping, fighting with the enemy, humor, etc. A classic!

  8. I enjoyed reading THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT and among Christie’s non-Poirot/Marple characters I’d rate Anne Beddingfield higher than, say, Tommy and Tuppence. She really gets into the skin of her character, so to say, though it was easy to guess who the man in the brown suit might be. Entertaining as they are, there is a certain amateurishness to Christie’s political “thrillers” and I wasn’t entirely convinced with the plot of THE SECRET ADVERSARY. I dare say, but at one point I felt as if I was reading an Enid Blyton adventure. I think locomotives and railway stations account for a great number of fiction, as they do films. So far Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS remains my favourite “train” novel. I wonder how many people have relived Poirot’s journey since the book’s release.

    • Prashant – One of the things I want to do before my time ends is take that Orient Express train journey. Of course, I certainly hope that it doesn’t end in the same sort of tragedy… Thanks so much too for your comments about Christie’s political thrillers. She seemed to enjoy writing them but I would agree that I prefer her other kinds of ‘sleuth’ novels. Still, I do have to say I like The Man in the Brown Suite. I think my favourite character in that novel is Suzanne – such a witty, interesting person.

  9. kathy d.

    The Lady Vanishes is wonderful throughout, and the cast: Dame Mae Whitty as Miss Froy, Michael Redgrave, the two British heroes, etc. I could watch this movie once a year — and women are heroes here, too!

  10. I’m back. I have two train series that I haven’t tried yet. I wonder if anyone else knows about them. The Railway Detective series by Edward Marston? And the Jim Stringer series by Andrew Martin that starts with The Necropolis Railway?

  11. Murders and trains remind me of Murder on the Orient Express, Double Indemnity and Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Man in Lower ten. I love long train journeys. I too hope to take the Orient Express someday!

    • Valli – I like train journeys too. There is just something about them isn’t there? You’ve given such good examples too of novels with a train component in them. And you’re reminded me I must read Double Indemnity. It’s a classic novel.

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