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!

Great Black Kanba by Constance and Gwenyth Little

Book Details

Originally published in 1944
Also known as The Black Express by Conyth Little

The Blurb

Who was she? Where was she going? And why?

All she knew about herself she got from a fellow passenger on the train. According to this dubious source, she was Miss Cleo Ballister, a pretty, shabbily dressed actress who had been struck on the head with a valise which had tumbled from an upper bunk and completely blotted out her memory. Now here she was en route to Melbourne to meet relatives she couldn’t remember ever having heard of before.

As the trip went relentlessly on, Cleo picked up a whole family – Uncle Joe, Aunt Esther, miscellaneous cousins, and two unknown boy friends, both of whom claimed to be engaged to her. Flickers of the past tantalized her memory, serving only to add to her frightened mental confusion. Finally murder boarded the Trans-Australian express, and Cleo Ballister was seriously implicated. A series of fantastic events build up to a climax that unveils a murderer and “Cleo’s” lost identity.

The Verdict

Fascinating story that blends suspense and whodunnit elements effectively, although be prepared to wait for the murder. The solution is clever and well clued although the way it is revealed is a little underwhelming.


My Thoughts

Those who have followed this blog for a while will know that I am a subscriber to the Coffee and Crime subscription box run by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime. It is always a thrill when I get book post, particularly as Kate always seems to pick out something by authors who are new to me. Great Black Kanba is a great case in point. Not only was the edition I received a beautiful Dell Mapback, the first in my collection, it was by two authors I knew relatively little about.

Constance and Gwenyth Little were Australian sisters who wrote together as Conyth Little in the 1940s and early 50s. I had seen several intriguing reviews for their work including some from Kate herself. This book, also sometimes known as The Black Express, comes from the middle of their careers and is set in that most appealing of all Golden Age locales – a train.

The hook for the story is that the narrator begins the story having completely lost her memory to the point where she does not remember her own name. Instead she is told who she is and where she is traveling to by a stranger who deduced that information from searching through her baggage. We quickly realize though that this information could be incorrect as the only identity document she has, a driving licence application for Sydney, does not feature a photograph.

Among the items in her purse is a letter from Uncle Joe who tells her that he and the family will meet her at Melbourne. She goes to the meeting as Cleo, assuming that her memory will simply return in time, keeping that a secret from them. Given that Cleo was to meet most of the party for the first time, their ready acceptance of her hardly proves the matter of her identity either.

Memory loss is one of those tropes that can feel really quite corny, in part because this sort of total memory loss is really, really rare and, I imagine, rarely caused by a falling valise. Given that the whole story is built around that idea it does mean that you do have to come to this with an acceptance of the artificiality of the setup. If you can accept that idea though I feel that the story takes that idea in some really interesting and entertaining directions.

One of the most stressful parts of the situation for “Cleo” is that she is met by two men, each claiming that they are engaged to her. While she is trying to work out who exactly she is, she also has to navigate these relationships and figure out which of them (if any) she can trust. It is not only an entertaining situation in terms of often awkward conversation, it does relate back to the core mystery of who she is as one of them shares some information about herself that she does not want to believe.

I found the discussion of the logistics of traveling across the Australian continent by rail to be utterly fascinating. Not only did this trip require multiple changes to one’s watch as you cross multiple time zones, you also needed to change trains on several occasions. This was not because you were needing to head in a different direction but because the Australian states had decided to use different rail gauges when building the network, making it impossible for a single train to complete a coast to coast journey.

The relationships between the Australian states has another interesting impact on the story later on, following the first murder. The complex question of jurisdictional authority crops up, creating an obstacle for the police forces in investigating that crime. These are just two examples of the ways that the novel’s setting and the train journey itself create an interesting backdrop to the crime investigation plot.

You may have noticed that while I have referenced murder, I have not shared any details of the circumstances leading to it. That reflects that we do not see a murder committed until over halfway through the book, long past the point I feel comfortable spoiling. Trust though that this is not simply an investigation into identity and that the Littles give us a compelling murder story too.

In her own review of this book, Kate shares her frustration with the book’s ending which she felt was rushed. I do understand what she means, although I thought that the explanation of what had happened was interesting and hung together very well. I definitely share the frustration though with the circumstances in which we learn that information.

Basically the trouble is that we have two different styles of narrative being forced to coexist. One is a psychological suspense story about a forgotten identity while the second is a more traditional murder story. Both are fascinating and there are some really interesting connections between those two story threads. The problem is however that while the first thread is responsible for turning up some of the information about the second, it is hard to say that the heroes really do much to bring about the ending. It is instead something that seems to happen to them. Similarly, the confession is something we hear rather than something that is actively brought about.

I do think it important to stress though that my issues with the ending are almost all presentational rather than substantive. While I may wish that the central characters were more directly responsible for solving the case, the actual solution to the murders is very clever and thoughtfully clued, pulling together several seemingly disconnected strands of the plot. I was largely satisfied, even if I wish that the final chapter had presented us with a more credible cause for the memory loss than the fallen bag explanation.

This was my first taste of the writing of Constance and Gwenyth Little but I am fairly confident that it will not be my last…