There are two settings that I identify strongly with the golden age of detective fiction. The first is the country house mystery along the lines of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The idea of a location where everyone gathers to relax or see friends and family turning murderous is one of those ideas that gets used again and again, particularly in contemporary works that seek to evoke that “Agatha Christie-style mystery” feel.
The other setting I associate with this era of crime fiction is, as you have no doubt guessed, the mystery set aboard a train. This is a less common setting but one that I would suggest is much more closely tied to the original golden age period. Yes, people still write works set on trains but in doing so they often trying to evoke or reference one of the most famous mysteries of all time, Murder on the Orient Express (which, as a friend noted on Twitter, will be the next title on my Poirot read-through).
I think there are several reasons that the train as a setting has such appeal to me. The first is that, unlike the plane, it is easy to move around and socialize on a train. The space becomes all the more important to the story as we become obsessed with whose cabin is next to the murder victim’s or who was sat in which seats in the dining car. It is a diagram lover’s dream – all those lovely rectangles, many of them with numbers associated with them. When you consider the possibilities for locked spaces the train offers a staggering variety of options for the crime writer.
Another reason is there is that sense of the space around the train itself. The landscape can really matter and you often have a sense of the train rushing through tunnels or through snowy, mountainous terrain that will almost certainly force the train to stop at some point. A plane or boat is obviously occupying a space but how often is it truly important to the story?
The train could be glamorous, comfortable and practical. It offered a location in which the middle and upper classes mixed, albeit sometimes reluctantly. Little wonder there are so many wonderful mystery stories set aboard them.
In the post below I share five mystery stories I most enjoyed that are set on or around the world of trains. I have tried to avoid the most obvious picks on the basis that they are already known and loved. Rather than trying to offer a ranking of the five stories I consider the best, I have instead attempted to pick five stories that illustrate different ways that this setting has been used in the genre. Okay – I cheat a little and mention a few others along the way… I may very well not mention one of your favorites. If so, I would love you to share the stories you love in the comments below and the reasons you love them.
Dread Journey (1945) by Dorothy B. Hughes
The train as an enclosed space
Dorothy B. Hughes’ Dread Journey features a group of characters from the world of Hollywood making a coast-to-coast journey. As a consequence of being in close confinement with each other within a carriage, tensions rise and grievances are aired. It is clear that not everyone who boarded the train will live to disembark at the other end and that one character, an actress who is about to be dropped by her producer, is playing a very dangerous game…
There are multiple aspects of this book that I really responded to. The discussion of the casting process in Hollywood during this era seems horribly familiar while Hughes creates an interesting cast of characters to fill her Pullman carriage.
Double Indemnity (1943) by James M. Cain
The train as the means of death
In spite of what the cover image shown here may suggest, the train in Double Indemnity is perhaps less of a feature than in the other stories I have listed. In fact very little of the book takes place in or around a train yet when it does feature it does so in a very important way. It serves as the means that Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger use to dispose of her husband as part of an insurance scam. Given that this is a noir story however do not expect all to go well for the couple.
I think it is easy to forget that a train itself was an enormously powerful object that could, with some careful planning, be used as a means to kill. After all it does have a habit of hiding other injuries that the victim may have sustained. For an example of that idea take a look at E. and M.A. Radfords’ excellent inverted detective novel The Heel of Achilles.
Vultures in the Sky by Todd Downing (1935)
The sudden entry into a tunnel providing the opportunity for murder
Todd Downing’s Vultures in the Sky takes place on a train travelling across the border between the United States and Mexico. After US customs service agent Hugh Rennert learns of a strange threatening conversation between passengers on the train he is alert to the possibility of trouble.
During the journey the train passes through a tunnel and the lights do not turn on, throwing the carriage into darkness. When the train emerges on the other side the man who had issued the threat lies dead but with no signs of violence it is not even certain if he has been murdered. Soon however further killings will clarify that matter.
Downing is an excellent descriptive writer, able to make you feel what it is like to be on that train – particularly later in the book where it becomes stranded in the middle of the desert. It is not only a thrilling read, it is an excellent puzzle mystery which I thoroughly recommend.
For those interested in another take on this theme, check out Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel from the British Library Crime Classics series.
Great Black Kanba (1944) by Constance and Gwenyth Little
An accident on board a train leading to trouble…
Great Black Kanba reminds us that travelers could often be meeting someone for the first time.
We meet the main character of this story after she has been injured in a baggage accident, causing her to lose her memory of who she is and where she is travelling to. Fellow passengers tell her who she is based on some items found in what is presumed to be her baggage and she sets out to complete the journey she is told she is on, hoping that her memory comes back as she does so.
Another novella that mixes an accident on a train, albeit a much more serious one, with questions about identity is Cornell Woolrich’s wonderful I Married a Dead Man. In that story an unmarried woman who is eight months pregnant gets in an accident and is mistaken for a pregnant woman who was traveling to meet her in laws for the first time. It is a truly great slice of noir fiction.
Death of a Train (1946) by Freeman Wills Crofts
Not all trains are passenger trains
Of course I had to include something by Freeman Wills Crofts who is a particularly appropriate choice for this topic given his own background as a railroad engineer prior to becoming an author. He uses trains as elements in several of his books and while train timetables are not as vital to Crofts’ storytelling as some would have you believe, he certainly had a strong appreciation for the railroad and he does sometimes get rather technical.
Death of a Train takes place during the Second World War and involves a secret plan to transport important supplies without them falling into enemy hands. A special train is laid on but when an attempt to seize it is foiled only by chance it becomes clear that there must be a leak somewhere in the War Cabinet. It falls to Inspector French to try and seek out the guilty party.
This is not the most interesting of Crofts’ railroad mysteries but I selected it as a reminder that not every train carried passengers and that while goods trains may not be as glamorous, they could still offer intriguing possibilities for storytelling.
So there you have my five suggestions for Golden Age detective and mystery novels that feature trains. What are some of your favorite stories to feature trains? Feel free to break away from the Golden Age and include more recent titles!