Five to Try: Railway Mysteries

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.

Photo by Gabriela Palai on Pexels.com

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!

Vultures in the Sky by Todd Downing

Book Details

Originally published 1935
Hugh Rennert #3
Preceded by The Cat Screams
Followed by Murder on the Tropic

The Blurb

The journey of the Mexico City-bound Pullman seems ill-fated from the outset ― what with the engine troubles and the threat of an impending railway strike ― but no one aboard expects the terror that will descend upon the luxury train between Laredo and its destination. First a man dies as the vehicle passes through a dark tunnel and then, just as United States Customs Agent Hugh Rennert begins to investigate, the train comes to a screeching halt in the middle of the desert.

More deaths follow as night falls, and when it becomes clear that a murderer is on the loose, the stationary cars transform into an isolated hall of horrors. The varied and intriguing cast of passengers begins to panic, but Rennert remains calm and collected, untangling the web of motives in a desperate search for the culprit. Will he be able to unmask the killer before the voyage ends?

A suspenseful whodunnit that charts a path through the Mexican wilderness, Vultures in the Sky highlights the best aspects of the Golden Age mystery, mixing classical detective work with a tense, closed-circle setting. The third novel in Todd Downing’s Hugh Rennert series (which can be enjoyed in any order), it shows an undeservedly forgotten author working at the top of his craft.

The Verdict

A triumph of setting and style – Downing’s story has a clever plot and accelerates towards a thrilling conclusion.


My Thoughts

Todd Downing was unknown to me prior to picking up Curtis Evans’ Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing. The book discusses Downing’s life and the influences on his writing but at that time I was initially interested in it for its reproductions of the reviews he wrote about detective fiction in the 1930s for The Daily Oklahoman newspaper.

As I read more about Downing’s own biography and unusual background (at least in the context of writers of the Golden Age) I became interested in him as a writer – a feeling only amplified by the reviews I have read written by fellow bloggers. After taking a look over several of his titles I decided to make this one my first for two reasons. Firstly because it features a train journey which could tie in with an upcoming train-related post and also because this book is being reissued in print at the end of the year as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I have used the AMC cover image for this review to match the others on my dedicated page for that range but for the purposes of this review I read the previous Coachwhip edition, limited copies of which are still currently available on Amazon.

Vultures in the Sky takes place aboard a train travelling from Laredo, Texas to Mexico City. During the journey US Customs Agent Hugh Rennert is approached by a passenger who tells him that his wife, who has departed the train, overheard a conversation where one passenger was issuing a cryptic threat to another. A short while later the train passes through a tunnel and the carriage is thrown into complete darkness. When the train emerges the man who had made the threat lies dead though the means is unclear at first. It will take a second death to confirm that a murderer is aboard the train and they are likely to strike again…

The train is a perfect cauldron for resentments and mistrust to grow, particularly given the nature of the barren and unforgiving landscape the train is moving through. There may be a killer aboard but to leave the train would spell likely death from the elements.

Downing’s descriptions of the Mexican landscape are superb, not only evoking a sense of place but also the political tension that was still palpable a decade after the Mexican revolution. This only feeds into the nervous tension already being felt by the passengers and the threat of being interrogated by the local police when they reach their destination serves as a credible motivation for them to cooperate with Rennert’s investigation. As for the train’s staff, they are motivated to keep the train running so it can reach its destination before a staff strike kicks in.

The train is filled with quite an interesting mix of characters, several of whom seem to be hiding secrets. Rennert’s job is to tease out those secrets and discover who might have a connection to the deceased. Even when a passenger seems to be cooperative though there is always a question about whether there is more that is left unsaid or whether they are being entirely truthful.

Rennert makes for a pretty engaging sleuth. Clearly smart and perceptive, he applies pressure to the other passengers with reasoning, making the case for why they should cooperate with him and also getting the train’s staff on his side. His personality never distracts from the case itself and he remains focused on working through the facts logically to tease out an explanation.

While typically mystery novels begin with their most interesting murder, Vultures in the Sky‘s murder only seem to grow in interest. That partly reflects that it takes a while for us to get definite confirmation of murder but also because the seeming acceleration in killings adds a sense of pressure and tension to the affair.

Tension continues to build as our cast of suspects begins to thin out and there are several external factors at play that only add to the pressure. One of these, referenced in the blurb above, is that the train suddenly stops in the middle of the desert. This adds a sense of dread that something is about to happen, once again drawing on some aspects of what was happening in Mexico at the time, but it also adds pressure for the killer who is trapped aboard a train with a detective who is edging towards the truth.

This and several other external factors have an impact on the investigation, only serving to increase the tension and setting up an exciting conclusion to the story. I felt that conclusion lived up to my hopes, being not only a compelling resolution to the mystery but also quite thrilling in its application of pressure, not letting up until the final few pages. Downing answered all of the questions I had and delivered a killer I didn’t see coming.

Overall my first experience of Downing was a really positive one. I loved his attention to building a sense of place and his careful puzzle plotting and I look forward to reading more by him in the future.

Do you have a favorite Todd Downing novel?