My dad loved model railroading. The HO models–not the big antique things that are so valuable today, such as Lionel etc. He built his own layout in the basement, designed a coal chute, and a bridge that crossed the bottom of the stairs that could be raised for people to enter and leave. He belonged to a model railroad club in town, and they built a bigger layout, complete with trees, houses, people, mountains, you name it. And trains, naturally. He also loved riding steam engines. Which are few and far between these days. He’d taken trips on most of the stream trains on the east coast of the U.S. and even postponed deadly needed surgery to travel on the Horseshoe Curve route in Pennsylvania. He came by this love naturally. My grandfather was first a fireman, then an engineer on the mega rail line–The Pennsy Railroad as we always called it. My dad would bring his father’s lunch to a point along the line and pass it up as the train paused for water or coal, whatever was needed at the time. He took trips on the rails at ages parents would be put in prison today for allowing a child to ride. At age 8 he went to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair by train, with his older sister-by about a year–and later the 1939 NY World’s Fair, alone. So when he was ill, and interested in reading mysteries, I naturally thought about train themed ones. Wow. I had no idea how many were out there. Old classic mysteries such as Agatha Christie’s, a newer novel called Foamers, a comedic turn that takes place on several Australian rail routes, and an anthology of mysteries edited by the seasoned writer, Bill Pronzini, were provided to him, just for a starter.
Since those days, many more railroad mysteries have been written, even with the lack of rail service here in the US, historical stories are still able to utilize the iron horse. Of course in Europe, trains are still in full force, if not steam, they at least run all the time, all over. European Rail Holidays are quite common and very desirable vacations. Americans find taking trains in Europe to be a romantic experience, something to be desired, as opposed to riding Amtrak here in the US. Our train system has been relegated to almost nothing, and close to extinction, and when one does ride the rail, delays, poor service, and uncomfortable seating are often complaints. I’ve ridden both Amtrak, and the British railways, and yes, the British are much more adept at this mode of transportation at this point in time. Naturally, the most famous mystery taking place on a train would be Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express. If you don’t know the plot of this, you’ve been living under the train tracks too long. The train route ran from Paris to Istanbul, and vice versa. Hercule Poirot is traveling from Istanbul on the Orient Express when murder is done. The ingenious conclusion has gone down in plot history. Even I, who has neither read the book, nor seen any film, knows whodunit!
Christie must have liked traveling on trains, because I believe she used them in several other titles–most notably–The Mystery of the Blue Train. All of Christie’s classic upper crust characters appear on board, as well as a missing jewel. Naturally Poirot wouldn’t be traveling to any place considered mundane, he’s on the way to the French Riviera. Too rich for my blood.
Another very well known title, Strangers on a Train,by Patricia Highsmith, owes it’s fame more to the Alfred Hitchcock film, than popularity of the book. Which is a shame, since the film doesn’t follow the book’s darkness. The two men do meet accidentally on a train, and do agree to swap murder victims. It’s after this that the film deviates widely from the novel.
My favorite train mystery is Great Black Kanba, by the Little sisters, Constance and Gwyneth. It’s on my best mysteries of all time list–and will be given its due when I write it up, but I’ll supply a hint–a woman traveling alone in Australia is hit on the head with a piece of luggage, and loses her memory–not knowing whether the people claiming she is a part of their family are telling the truth or not!
Foamers is a title written in the 90s about fans of trains, to put it bit blunter–they’re obsessed with them, their time schedules, workings, destinations, everything to do with riding on the rails. It takes place in the US, so Amtrak is a major part of the story. It’s a fun enough read, and I know my father enjoyed knowing there were plenty like him out there.
The anthology edited by the marvelous Bill Pronzini, Midnight Specials, includes suspense stories on railroads and trains by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, August Derleth, Ellery Queen, Robert Bloch, Georges Simenon, among others.
The famous, ‘had she but known’ writer, Mary Roberts Rinehart, penned The Man in Lower 10–that’s a berth. A berth, for those under 100, was a bunk bed one slept in–the bottom being lower, the top, upper. Lawyer Lawrence Blakeley, wakes on the train trip home, to find that bank notes, and his clothes, are missing from his sleeping berth. Plus, there’s been a murder in the berth across, and Blakeley becomes the number one suspect when the murder weapon is reveled from under his pillow! Another author of similar style, Ethel Lina White wrote the novel The Wheel Spins from which Alfred Hitchcock created the film, The Lady Vanishes.
Dorothy B. Hughes, known for her noir novels, penned a novel Dread Journey with very little crime, if I recall, but nevertheless an interesting character study of a variety of personages on a train going across country.
Another title on my best list, I Married a Dead Man, begins with a train trip–and then, disaster strikes. A huge train wreck kills a newlywed couple, while a woman who was keeping the bride’s ring on her finger while the bride washed her hands, is identified as the dead bride, and accepted into the dead groom’s family.
A historical novel, Death Train To Boston with spirited suffragette Fremont Jones, also entails a huge train crash–the injured heroine is found and taken captive by a Mormon who wants her for his next wife. Sounds a little out there-but it captures the time and thought process for that particular extremist sect.
I was fascinated by an older title from the 1930s by Milton Propper called, The Ticker Tape Murders. The title doesn’t hint about murder occurring on route from Philadelphia down through South New Jersey to popular resort, Cape May. A body is found on the tracks, and it is determined to be someone who was riding the train–more shocking, it was the very individual the detective was to meet! I was intrigued as it takes place in my neck of the woods, as it were–even though trains long ago stopped serving this area from Philly. A little train line has been recently established to go from Philadelphia to Trenton, amid complaints from nearby residents about the noise the trains cause. Maybe they shouldn’t have bought houses near tracks, even if they’d not been used in decades, lol. A similar theme plays out in John Rhodes’ Tragedy on the Line- Gervase Wickenden (don’t you just love the character names), is assumed to have been hit by a train, until Dr. Priestley, looking for the dead man’s will, finds a bullet in a tree and a cigar on the railway line. How these two things convince the detective it was murder is enough inducement to read the book–if only to find how this could possibly indicate foul play.
Miles Burton’s (who is also the above John Rhode) Death in the Tunnel keeps detectives Desmond Merrion and Detective Inspector Arnold on their toes investigating the death of Sir Wilfred Saxonby, discovered murdered in a first class carriage on the London to Stourford train.
Newer titles I’ve not read include a series by master historical crime fiction writer Edward Marsden. Detective Inspector Robert Colbeck is The Railway Detective of the same name in the first novel of many. It’s 1851 London, the Great Expedition is about to open, and naturally the railways need to be protected. A starred review for The Insane Train by Sheldon Russell has interested me enough to find a copy. “After a devastating fire at an insane asylum in California, Hook Runyon has been put in charge of security for a train that is to transport the survivors to a new destination. Hook hires a motley crew of World War II veterans to help, but things soon go awry…”
Murder on the Ballarat Train: A Phryne Fisher Mystery by Kerry Greenwood–” Phryne has to use her Beretta .32 to save her life and that of her traveling companion Dot. And someone has poisoned the other passengers with chloroform.” It takes place in –the 1920s–as does another recent entry into the railroad mystery genre–Murder on the Flying Scotsman–by Carola Dunn featuring Lady Daisy Dalrymple. As the title suggests, the train is bound for Scotland when someone murders the ne’er-do-well beneficiary of a family fortune.
In a distant part of the world, Japan, a train disappears completely from Tokyo between two stations with 400 passengers, and only after a ransom demand is made, does the rail company get a inkling of what they are in store for. The Mystery Train Disappears was the first of author Kyotaro Nishimura’s rail themed books translated into english.
Spies! That’s what Death of a Train explores–espionage during WWII. Sabotage of the wrong train brings Inspector French on the scene. By Freeman Wills Crofts. If gourmet food is of interest, here’s a book that combines both that and train travel–Peter King’s Dine and Die on the Danube Express. The journey begins in Munich, the Gourmet Detective becomes involved when a passenger goes missing.
One would not think Dick Francis, the king of jockey and horse racing mysteries, would have a train themed book, but, you would be wrong! Torquil (Tor) Kelsey is an undercover agent for the British Jockey Club when he decides to travel on the “The Great Transcontinental Mystery Race Train.” Pretending he’s a waiter, Tor keeps an eye on a suspected murderer in The Edge.
Creepy train! That’s what The Necropolis Railway appears to be about–a railway line that takes coffins from London morgues to cemeteries at the edge of the city. Jim Stringer learns the predecessor of his job has disappeared. It beckons my morbid side!
Radine Trees Nehring’s trip only takes a day–A Journey to Die For–her protagonists, a retired couple. And the body isn’t found on the train, still, rails are a big part of the plot.
The Case Is Closed begins with a bright young woman Hilary taking the wrong train, and meeting up with a hysterical older lady who refers to the conviction of Hilary’s friend Geoffrey. The short conversation on the train sets into motion events that may clear Geoffrey of murder. Patricia Wentworth is one of the icons of older crime fiction, and this was one of the first books I’d read of hers. Needless to say, I’ve traveled many more miles with her work, since then.
A reference book has been pointed out to me:
“The Subject Is Murder” by Albert J. Menendez (Garland, 1986). Chapter 18 “Murder Rides the Rail” gives 118 examples.
I would like to thank the members of Golden Age Detection for supplying me with several titles I’d forgotten, or never knew of, for this article!