No crimes take place aboard a train in Paula Hawkins’ smash bestseller The Girl on the Train, unless you consider excessive drinking a crime (oddly enough, in many states in America, it would be, but I’ve got no clue about England, where the novel takes place). Even so, the locomotive plays a central role in the novel, both in its plot and its structure.
Hawkins’ anti-hero, Rachel, takes the same train in and out of London each day, travelling past the neighborhood in which she used to live, including the very house she once owned (her ex-husband lives there now with his new wife and child). A few houses down lives a couple she doesn’t know, but she can see them out on their back porch day after day, and in those few moments she allows herself to indulge in some pleasant fantasies about who they are and what they’re like.
Until this fantasy is shattered by a brief glimpse of this unknown woman amorously kissing a man who is definitely not her husband.
And then, days later, disappearing altogether.
Did her husband discover her affair? Did he kill her? Did she run away with her lover? Or did her lover try to end the affair, and she refused, and so he killed her in a rage? So many questions. And Rachel realizes that none of them are likely being asked at all, because she may be the only person who knows about the affair in the first place.
It’s a pretty solid premise, and Hawkins does a fair amount with it. She does it well, too. The Girl on the Train was initially billed as a successor to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and while Hawkins’ writing is not quite as sharp and incisive, it is definitely propulsive, intelligent, and cunning. Much of what has happened in the novel should be obvious to the reader, but Hawkins hoodwinks her audience time and again, slyly keeping your eye on the left hand while the right hand shuffles the cards.
This is not the first glimpse from a train that served as the basis of a crime novel. Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (alternately titled–rather lamely, if I might add–What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!) offers a darker vision. In Christie’s novel, old Mrs. McGillicuddy doesn’t witness a mere kiss, but an actual murder.
At the moment when the two trains gave the illusion of being stationary, a blind in one of teh carriages flew up with a snap. Mrs. McGillicuddy looked into the lighted first-class carriage that was only a few feet away.
Then she drew her breath in with a gasp and half rose to her feet.
Standing with his back to the window and to her was a man. His hands were round the throat of a woman who faced him, and he was slowly, remorselessly, strangling her. Her eyes were darting from their sockets, her face was purple and congested. As Mrs. McGillicuddy watched, fascinated, the end came, the body went limp and crumpled in the man’s hands.
Stephen King would use this same premise in a brilliant short story, That Bus is Another World, altering but a few details: buses instead of trains, a cut throat instead of strangulation. It’s a rather durable plot device.
In Christie’s hands, it becomes the basis for a fascinating mystery. Mrs. McGillicuddy, horrified by what she has seen (although, also, as Christie notes, “fascinated”) immediately notifies the authorities. But when they search the train where the murder has taken place, they can find no body.
It is up to the venerable Miss Marple to unweave the hideous crime. Which of course she does. Miss Marple is nothing if not dependable.
Not to be outdone, Hercule Poirot–Christie’s other long-time detective–would also solve a murder mystery aboard a train. Murder on the Orient Express is one of Christie’s most well-known novels. Indeed, it is one of the most beloved books around the world. In this instance, the murder takes place on the fabled Orient Express while the train is stopped in a snow storm. A rather bold time to go about killing people, given that there is no possible escape.
Poirot, of course, tracks down the killer, in one of Christie’s most unique and stunning final-chapter reveals.
On a side note: Christie was the all-time master of crimes aboard transportation. Not only trains, but she wrote novels in which murders are committed on riverboats (Death Upon the Nile), and in the air (Death in the Clouds). It is unfortunate that she never turned her hand to science-fiction, in which case we might have had Poirot in space: Death in Orbit.
Trains have served as the instigating setting in more than one crime tale. Take Patricia Highsmith’s devious Strangers on a Train. Two men meet on a train, strike up a conversation. The talk takes a dark turn, and both men reveal that they have so-called loved ones in their lives that they’d like to see dead.
Well, what’s a man to do?
“We murder for each other, see? I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on the train , see and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis!”
Highsmith’s hero, having indulged the conversation as far as he’s willing, begs off and believes that will be the end. But the other man is not done, and he decides to go ahead with the plan. He kills the hero’s wife, and proceeds to blackmail the hero into committing the other murder.
Alfred Hitchcock would turn this into one of his most successful movies.
Also worth noting is Cornell Woolrich’s forgotten gem I Married a Dead Man, which begins on a train. Young Helen has been abandoned by her lover, and she boards a train heading West. On board, she meets Patrice, who is also pregnant and happens to be travelling with her husband. She’s off to meet his family for the first time.
In a happy, girlish moment, Helen and Patrice are admiring Patrice’s wedding ring. Helen tries the ring on. And in that moment, the train crashes.
Patrice and her husband are both killed. But when Helen is pulled from the wreckage, she is mistaken for Patrice. She resembles the girl well-enough, and she has the wedding ring on her finger after all. She is taken in by the husband’s family, who are wealthy and treat her well.
What a pleasant turn of events. Until Helen’s ex-lover comes to town. He knows the truth. And he spots the perfect opportunity for blackmail. And maybe more.
But perhaps no train wreck in a mystery novel is more spectacular than the one which opens Dan Simmons’ epic and masterful novel Drood. A historical mystery, the novel follows Charles Dickens in his final years. The novel opens with Dickens aboard a train which suffers a horrific crash–a real event in Dickens’ life.
Dickens survives, is indeed fine, and he exits his coach in an attempt to help others further up the train whose cars have derailed. The wreck is a waking nightmare: fiery, bodies strewn everywhere, men and women and children screaming.
And amongst the horror, Dickens stumbles upon a man:
Suddenly appearing next to him was a tall, thin man wearing a heavy black cape far more appropriate for a night at the opera than an afternoon’s voyage to London on the tidal train. Both men were carrying their top hats in one hand while grabbing at the embankment for balance with their free hands. This figure, as Dickens later described to me in a throaty whisper during the days after the accident when his voice “was no longer my own,” was cadaverously thin, almost shockingly pale, and stared at the writer from dark-shadowed eyes set deep under a pale, high brow that melded into a pale, bald scalp. A few strands of greying hair leapt out from the sides of this skull-like visage. Dickens’s impression of a skull was reinforced, he said later, by the man’s foreshortened nose–“mere back slits opening into the grub-white face than a proper proboscis” was how Dickens described it–and by small, sharp, irregular teeth, spaced too far apart, set into gums so pale that they were whiter than the teeth themselves.
Sounds rather like Count Dracula.
It is this man, who calls himself Drood, who will haunt Dickens’ dreams and fuel one of the finest mystery novels of the last twenty years.
It’s hard to say just what is so appealing about the locomotive. There are other modes of transportation, obviously. And while setting murders in cars would probably be rather mundane (to say nothing of narrowing down the suspect pool), there have not been nearly so many crimes aboard airplanes. Or hot air balloons, zeppelins, cruise ships, or submarines.
Perhaps there is something that is just more romantic about trains. Something that reminds us of home, in ways both good and not. Whatever the reason, the romance hasn’t worn off, as Hawkins’ novel clearly shows.
When it comes to mystery novel settings, trains are still killing it.