This photograph was taken at Los Angeles’ Union Station. It’s a major transportation hub, so thousands of people go through it each day. And most of them are so intent on their own business that they don’t usually pay much attention to anyone else. And because of the surging crowds, it’s hard to notice everything and everyone, even if you do pay attention. So it’s fairly easy for someone to fade into the background, as the saying goes.
That sort of anonymity is one reason that train stations, buses and other crowded places can be such effective settings in a crime novel. As Josephine Tey shows in The Man in the Queue, when there is a large group of disparate people together in one place, it’s easy for one person to, quite literally, get away with murder. That’s in fact what happens in the novel when small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell is stabbed. He’s waiting with a large crowd of other people who’ve gathered at the Woofington Theatre to see the final performance of the hit show Did You Know? Everyone is so self-absorbed that no-one notices the murder. For inspector Alan Grant, it’s frustrating to have so many witnesses but so little useful information from them.
A similar sort of thing happens in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd. Dona Laura Sales Ribeiro is waiting for a bus along with a group of other people. Many others are walking by on the street. Despite the number of witnesses, no-one sees it when she falls, or is pushed, under an oncoming bus. At first, her death is put down to a terrible accident. But then it comes out that she had been to see Rio de Janeiro Inspector Espinosa a short time before her death. At the time, he wasn’t available to speak to her, and she agreed to return later. Now Espinosa is very curious about what she wanted and why she would have died so soon after coming to the police station, so he and the team begin to look into her death more closely. It turns out that this death was no accident.
Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit also includes a very effective large-crowd sort of murder. One afternoon, Marko Meixner is among a large crowd at a busy Sydney train station. When he is pushed under an oncoming train, New South Wales Police Inspectors Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare are called to the scene. At first, it looks as though this was a terrible accident. But when paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill arrive, they are shocked to see that this is the same man they rescued from a one-car crash earlier in the day. At that time, Meixner said that he was in terrible danger, and that they would be, too, if they spent any time with him. And now it seems that his warning wasn’t just an irrational rambling from a mentally ill person. What’s interesting about this particular murder is that, even with CCTV cameras in the station, Marconi and Shakespeare can’t follow individuals in the crowd well enough to work out who pushed the victim under the train.
Large, crowded places also serve another crime-fictional purpose for the author. They bring together lots of disparate people from all over. This means that any one character could have all sorts of interactions without contrivance. In fact, Hercule Poirot makes mention of this in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. He is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay when a fellow guest, Arlena Stuart Marshall, is murdered. Since he’s there, and is possibly the last person who saw the victim alive, he gets involved in the investigation. Early in the novel, before the murder, he’s talking with another guest who’s just said that the hotel isn’t the sort of place you’d find a body. Poirot begs to differ and explains himself this way:
”Let us say, you have an enemy. If you seek him out in his flat, in his office, in the street – eh bien, you must have a reason – you must account for yourself. But here at the seaside it is necessary for no one to account for himself. You are at Leathercombe Bay, why? Parbleu! it is August – one goes to the seaside in August – one is on one’s holiday. It is quite natural, you see, for you to be here and for Mr Lane to be here and for Major Barry to be here and for Mrs Redfern and her husband to be here. Because it is the custom in England to go to the seaside in August.”
It’s the sort of place where people from all over gather, and where they don’t have to explain why they’re there. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.
We see this sort of gathering together of disparate people in K.B. Owen’s Unseemly Haste, too. It’s 1898, and Concordia Wells is on a cross-country train journey from Hartford, where she teaches at a women’s college, to San Francisco. She’s taking the journey with her friend Pinkerton detective Penelope Hamilton, who has her own agenda. Along the way, Concordia runs up against crooked card players, fraud, a newspaper reporter in hiding, and a couple of murders. One of the elements in this novel is the number of very different kinds of people who are aboard the train. They come from all sorts of places, and all have their own agendas.
Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant deals with trouble in large crowds too. In both Tapas on the Ramblas and Date With a Sheesha, the trail of a case leads to large market bazaars where crowds of people mingle and where nobody pays a lot of attention to any one person. It’s easy to get lost, and easy to find yourself very vulnerable in such a crowd. And in both of those novels, that market setting is used very effectively to bring all sorts of people together.
And that’s what happens in places such as train stations, buses, markets and so on. They gather together all kinds of people from all over. And people are so intent on what they’re doing that they don’t pay attention to what’s going on around them. Even when they should…
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blackfoot’s Take a Train.