If you live in or near a large metropolis, then you’re probably familiar with that city’s subway/Underground/Metro system. In a place with extremely heavy traffic, it can be a lot more efficient to get where you’re going if you take the metro system. In fact, a lot of people in such areas don’t own cars, because it’s a lot easier and less expensive to simply take public transit.
Metros (whatever they are called in a given city) can also be very effective settings for action in a crime novel. For one thing, they can be very atmospheric – even creepy. For another, there are all sorts of disparate people who use the system. So, any number of things can happen. And, in crime novels, they do.
The London Underground system has been in place since the Victorian Era, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes knows the system by heart. Quite a number of the Holmes stories make reference to different Underground stations (Waterloo, Euston, and, of course, Baker Street, among others). At the time of the original Holmes stories, the London system was only a few decades old, and Conan Doyle makes quite effective use of it in the stories.
Many other authors also include stops at various London tube stations. For instance, Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit features Anne Bedingfield, a young woman who’s recently lost her father. Now, with no ties to keep her in London, she’d like to see a bit of the world. One day, she’s at the Hyde Park Corner tube station when she witnesses he death of a man who falls (or is he pushed?) into the path of an oncoming train. Anne happens to get hold of a piece of paper that fell from the man’s pocket and gets curious about it. It turns out to be a reference to the upcoming sailing of the HMS Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, Anne books passage and boards the ship. And that’s when her real adventures begin. She ends up getting caught in a web of international intrigue, jewel theft, and more.
Jewel theft also plays a role in Martha Grimes The Anodyne Necklace. Inspector Richard Jury is about to go off for a holiday when he’s sent to the village of Littlebourne, where the remains of a human finger have been found. The rest of the body is soon discovered, too. It turns out that the victim was Cora Binns, a temporary secretary who’d gone to Littlebourne for a job interview, but never made it to that meeting. As Jury and his friend, Melrose Plant, start to look into the matter, they learn that this death is not the only terrible thing to have happened in the village. Sixteen-year-old Katie O’Brien was brutally attacked in a London Underground station not far from where Cora Binns lived. Now, she’s in a coma, and is unlikely to survive. Those connections are too close to be coincidental, so Jury and Plant believe that the two incidents are related. And so they turn out to be. In the end, they are linked to another death, a jewel theft, and a cryptic treasure map.
Ed McBain’s Kiss features Emma Bowles. The story begins as someone tries to push her off of a subway platform and into the path of an oncoming train. She survives, but that’s hardly the end of her troubles. Less than two weeks later, someone tries to run her over with a car. Now, she goes to the police. She has come to believe that the man responsible for both incidents is the driver employed by her husband, Martin. If that’s true, then it’s quite possible Martin is trying to kill her. Detectives Meyer Meyer and Steve Carella look into the matter, and Martin Bowles hires a bodyguard to protect his wife. But Meyer and Carella being to suspect something very serious is going on when Emma gets into even more danger…
In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone discovers the body of the dog that’s owned by the people next door to him. At first, they think he’s responsible for the animal’s death. But he’s not. He wants to clear his name, and he’s curious about what happened. So, Christopher decides to become a detective like Sherlock Holmes and find out what happened to the dog. It’s not going to be easy for him, though. Christopher has autism, and although he’s high-functioning, it limits his social skills and makes it difficult for him to do a lot of things we take for granted. One of those things is taking public transit. In one thread of this plot, Christopher takes a trip on the Underground, and it’s interesting to get his perspective:
‘And I did detecting by watching and I saw that people were putting tickets into gray gates and walking through. And some of them were buying tickets at big black machines on the wall.’
For Christopher, this is a major undertaking, but he completes his journey and ends up learning a great deal, including things about himself.
And then there’s Fred Vargas’ The Chalk Circle Man, the first of her Commissaire Adamsberg novels. Adamsberg and his team are with the Paris Police, and they often deal with unusual cases. This one’s no different. It seems someone has been leaving blue chalk circles in different parts of the city and putting things (a hat, an orange, scraps of paper, and so on) in the circles. And each circle contains a cryptic message: Victor, woe’s in store. What are you out here for? At first, it seems harmless enough, if very odd. But Adamsberg does need to know who’s responsible. So, he tries to find out who’s been in the area where the circles are left. That includes getting information from the local Metro stations. Matters get more serious when the body of Madeleine Châtelain is found in a newly-drawn circle. Now, it’s a murder investigation that’s complicated by the discovery of two other bodies. In the end, Adamsberg and his team connect the deaths, and find the killer. And it turns out that the Metro plays a role in where and when the chalk circles are left.
And that’s the thing about the Underground/subway/Metro. The system allows people to get where they’re going efficiently and quickly. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Babyshambles’ Albion.