Mystery Trains: Crime Writers and the Railway
by Ian Bell
When I was a young kid growing up in Scotland, all those years ago, I was thought eccentric-even a bit wayward-in some of my ideas. Most of the time I was a regular guy, more or less indistinguishable from my peers, but there was one area where I always seemed to be a bit out of step with everyone else. From time to time, kindly adults would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I would try to offer an honest reply. Footballer, I would say. Arizona gunpoke. Viking warrior. Trapeze artist. Proprietor of a flea circus.
As you can see, I was a pretty flexible child, eager to keep my future career options pretty wide open. And even though it didn’t work out as I planned-or not yet anyway-like all kids I secretly sought approval from grown-ups. So I was always saddened by the puzzlement on the faces of my questioners as they listened to my schemes, and I knew every time that I had somehow said the wrong thing.
I know better now, of course. I may not have realised it, but I had said the wrong thing. The correct answer a boy was expected to give to that question at that time was “train driver.”
It might well seem strange to most of you today, but way back then, in the early 1950s, the railways still seemed to carry with them striking connotations of power and mystery and adventure. By no means did everyone have access to a private motorcar and regular air travel was still pretty rare, at least in my circle. So the steam trains (like the ocean liners) represented a masculine world of dynamism and mobility, far removed from the mundane daily grind. They offered a compelling vision of harnessed energy and the chance of serendipitous encounters. As portrayed in films like Shanghai Express, The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps, locomotives were urgent creatures of the night, racing along full of fire and smoke and noise.
In many ways, trains were magical devices. They emphasised speed and eliminated distance. They brought people together, but they also pulled them apart. And even before people read Patricia Highsmith, rail journeys could always contain an element of the unknown, an unexpected encounter with adventure. But paradoxically, amid all their opulence and exoticism the railways were also regulated by timetables and reliably predictable in their movements, thereby bringing together contending images of extravagance and control.
Of course we must remember that we are dealing here not with reality, but with representation. Despite the poetic and evocative depictions of opulence and travelling in style, most train journeys even then were in fact just long, expensive, and not very comfortable. (And this remains true in the U.K. today, alas.) So where did all those more glamorous images of rail travel, so firmly embedded in the common imagination, originate from? Why, from the cinema and the popular press-including crime fiction, Watson. Where else are such powerful fantasies established and disseminated?
As with so much else, the train begins to make its biggest impact in the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In his hands, the railway soon became a powerful image of a more mobile society than that of the recent past. Here is an early example of the romance of the train, from the master himself-first published in this very magazine-where the closed railway compartment embodies a kind of peripatetic cosiness, as though it was 221B Baker Street on wheels. In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” Sherlock Holmes and the ever-loyal Dr. John Watson are summoned by telegram to quit London temporarily for the rural west country of Herefordshire to investigate a puzzling case. “Leave Paddington by the 11.15,” they are baldly told. Collecting a few appropriate belongings, they head for the station that very morning: “Sherlock Holmes was pacing up and down, his tall, gaunt figure made even gaunter and taller by his long gray travelling-cloak and close fitting cloth cap.” A daunting sight for fellow passengers!
On boarding the train, the investigators quickly establish a congenial, slightly raffish male environment: “We had the carriage to ourselves save for an immense litter of papers which Holmes had brought with him. Among these he rummaged and read, with intervals of note-taking and of meditation, until we were past Reading. Then he suddenly rolled them all into a gigantic ball and tossed them up onto the rack.”
The journey proceeds peacefully. As Watson familiarises himself with the press reports of the case, Holmes scrutinises his “pocket Petrarch” with complete concentration. Time passes, and the miles slip by unobtrusively. Lunch is taken at Swindon, and the train arrives at its destination on time in the late afternoon. In a way that might surprise contemporary rail passengers, everything is exactly at it should be and the trip is accomplished without delay or incident.
In this version, the railway is one of the friendly new technologies, one of the demonstrable benefits of the then-recent advances in Victorian science and engineering that Doyle was eager to celebrate. In the story as told by Watson, the train is a purely functional device, neither creating nor solving the mystery, and contributing little to its unravelling. In terms of literary theory, the railway is a feature of the discourse, not of the story, its description being inessential to the central plot, no more (and no less) than an incidental felicity. The railway’s principal roles involve getting our heroes from A to B safely-allowing them time to read, talk, and eat in comfort as they go. In short, it is a conveyance without inconvenience.
All the same, the journey on the train is described as a kind of adventure-as a departure from the normal course of events, requiring elaborate preparation and special clothing. By merely going to Paddington Station, Holmes and Watson are made to appear daring and intrepid-taking a comfortable jaunt into the relatively unknown. Like the copy of Bradshaw’s European railway timetable to be found on Holmes’ mantelpiece, the 11.15 from Paddington reassures us that the world is regular and predictable, without letting us forget that it is also exotic and strange.
But the railway does not always show such a friendly and helpful face to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his famous characters. In a later story, “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” a more sinister and threatening version is offered. Instead of being associated with the successful transportation of the detectives, the trains here are the source of the mystery itself. And the railway in question this time is not the sunny and comfortable West Country line, but the much more sinister and unsettling underground system of the inner-city, a recent and as yet imperfectly understood innovation.
“The next thing that was heard of him was when his dead body was discovered by a plate-layer named Mason, just outside Aldgate Station on the Underground system in London.” The dead man here, identified as Arthur Cadogan West, is found next to the line. He is discovered to be in possession of a number of missing papers, vital (of course) to the security of the nation, being some of the secret plans for the new Bruce-Partington submarine. The body has no railway ticket anywhere about it, and there are no signs of a struggle. After lengthy investigation, Holmes eliminates the impossible, and is left with the improbable but unquestionable conviction that West’s dead body had fallen from the roof of the train, having been put there by a foreign agent at one of the stages where the carriages briefly travel overground.
Probably not one of the best Sherlock Holmes stories. By the time he published the collection His Last Bow in 1917, Doyle seems to have lost much of his earlier commitment and inventiveness. The “Bruce-Partington” nevertheless introduces a darker version of mobility surrounding the railway. The furtive and clandestine nature of the underground system, with trains emerging periodically into view amid the fog, offers a powerful image of the hidden and suppressed features of urban life which recur frequently throughout the stories. The city, as is so often the case, is the meeting point of the strange and the familiar, the reliable and the treacherous.
One further element in this story invites comment. Unlike most of the stories, in this adventure the investigation is conducted not by Holmes and Watson alone, but by a larger group including the Scotland Yard officer Lestrade and Sherlock’s smarter brother Mycroft. Mycroft’s work on behalf of the British government is rather enigmatically described. However, he is also presented as a creature of habit in an unexpected image: “Mycroft has his rails and he runs on them.”
In this one brief image of Mycroft as a kind of automaton or thinking machine, then, the contending ambiguities of rail travel in the stories coalesce. For Doyle, imagining a less complex Victorian world, the trains are a way of regularising energy and of making power predictable. Whether they are a force for good or evil depends on whether you stress their predictability or their potential subversiveness.
And, sadly, it is that grim word “predictable” which describes the subsequent use of the railway in early twentieth century crime writing. There were many isolated stories featuring trains, but after Doyle the focal figure has to be the ex-railway engineer Freeman Wills Crofts, who wrote a long series of novels featuring Inspector French between 1920 and 1957. Now be warned. Take my word for it, Crofts is a very special writer indeed. If your heart races at the recitation of weights, measures and dimensions, then Crofts is the man for you. But if you prefer to seek excitement, steer well clear. Freeman Wills Crofts is to boredom what James Ellroy is to sleaze, and his enduring appeal is confined to those readers who do not get out of the house very often.
Trains figure prominently throughout his work, although in a remarkably unromantic and prosaic way. In all of his novels, the key plot device is the cracking of a seemingly unshakeable alibi, invariably achieved by the close (the very close!) reading of a railway timetable. Human motivation and mendacity, it seems, are no match for a well-constructed timetable. His first novel, The Cask (1920) has at least the charm of novelty, but the later books fully justify their author’s inclusion at the head of what Julian Symons memorably called the “humdrum” school of crime writers. Treat him with caution. If you put one of his books down, it will be very hard to pick it up again.
Leaving F.W. Crofts to the insomniac or the otherwise dysfunctional, we can see that the railway is much more imaginatively and romantically exploited by the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. Many of her best known novels involve journeys-by rail or by boat-or touch on railway-related activities for atmosphere or plot.
Her first attempt-typically-features travel as an opportunity for upper class luxury. In The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), Hercule Poirot is on hand to investigate a case involving missing rubies, heiresses, and the complicated lives of the rich and famous-all travelling on the famous London to Nice “Blue Train.”
The author later rather harshly described this novel, written at a very difficult time in her life, as “easily the worst book I ever wrote,” and it is certainly wooden enough in its characterisation and exposition. But in its railway setting it hints at possibilities which Christie was to exploit much more creatively and imaginatively in her later work. In what must be her most famous and successful novel, Murder on the Orient Express (1934), she explores the most fashionable and elegant of all contemporary rail journeys, setting a compelling mystery on the train later made even more famous by Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and Ian Fleming. In Christie’s account, the Orient Express carries Hercule Poirot from Stamboul to London, via Paris, offering a range of venues which hint at mystery and romance.
Drawing on her own experience of an earlier journey on the actual Orient Express undertaken in 1928, the author describes its languid comforts with some relish. Elaborate meals are served up in style. Exquisite food and drink is on offer. Rich and glamorous passengers recline gracefully, spending and consuming conspicuously. The central plot twist is brought in when the train is suddenly snowbound in northern Yugoslavia-a device perhaps implausible to some, but with the full corroboration of actual incidents. While stuck in the drifts, the carriage figures as an isolated “closed setting,” enabling Poirot to investigate the sudden violent death of a disagreeable American passenger-Samuel Edward Ratchett-who has suffered multiple stab wounds. The wounds are of different degrees of severity. The other passengers seem above suspicion. There are no signs of motive or cause. Poirot is baffled. And you probably know the rest . . .
Murder on the Orient Express is certainly one of Christie’s most ingenious and entertaining mysteries, and the special atmosphere of the train is a highly significant feature of the text. In another Hercule Poirot novel, The ABC Murders (1936), she uses the predictability of the railway in a striking and witty way. Trains themselves do not appear, but timetables are central. The plot concerns a series of murders, committed in alphabetical order, with each body being found next to a copy of the railway timetable (the “ABC” of the title) open at the appropriate letter of the alphabet. Without giving too much away, it is safe to indicate that the apparent connection is misleading, and that all but one of the murders is a diversion.
Although the story is full of incidental delights-Poirot has started to dye his graying hair and his vanity is a recurring motif providing consistent amusement-the railway timetable remains central to the deception. It imposes a spurious order on events, and is still perhaps the best of all of Christie’s “red herrings.”
Both of these Poirot books were generously received on their original publication, were successfully adapted for the screen, and remain popular, bearing reading even now. But my personal favourite of Christie’s railway adventures is a later Miss Marple, 4.50 from Paddington (1957), also known in the U.S. as What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw. In this amusing and slightly self-parodic work, the serendipity of the journey is emphasised. For the eponymous Mrs. McG, a day’s shopping in London has been satisfactorily concluded, and she has boarded a train home. As her train pulls out, another pauses alongside and they are still for a moment. Mrs. McG looks out of the window, and is appalled to see, in the adjacent carriage, a woman being strangled. One glance is all she gets as the trains then pull away from each other, but it is enough.
So the mystery begins, and we see the full dialogue between order and disorder articulated through timetables and passion. The predictability of trains is cleverly contrasted with the volatility of the human personality. The mystery itself is expertly handled by Christie, and the plot is skilfully detected and uncovered by Miss Marple and her younger assistant Lucy Eylesbarrow.
There are many reasons for liking this book, including its delightful representation of genteel rail travel, but to explain my own particular fondness we have to go back to an earlier stage of my life again. How well I remember coming across this startling piece of detection, announced by the local policeman on finding the body: “The woman wasn’t a local, sir,” he said. “There’s some reason to believe-from her underclothing-that she might have been a foreigner.”
These are startling words for an inexperienced reader to come across. Foreigners are exotic in all sorts of ways. And if I am honest I might have to say that thinking about those words, and speculating on their implications, might have given me the first inklings that there could be more to my life than even being a train driver.
Never forget: reading crime fiction can change your life.