Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Trains & Murder in the Golden Age

image from Dover edition of The Passenger from Scotland Yard

Trains often play an important in Golden Age mysteries. Murderers shove their victims from rail carriages or leave them behind after exiting themselves. Sometimes an alibi depends on a railway timetable. Of course, probably the most famous train murder mystery is the Christie classic, Murder on the Orient Express featuring a disparate group of passengers, including the great detective Hercule Poirot, all snow-bound on the luxurious train and trapped with murder in their midst. The train itself and the enclosed, almost locked-room nature of its snow-bound circumstances are central the plot and determining who had the opportunity to murder the malevolent American, Mr. Ratchett.

But the characters don't have to stay on the train for the entire course of the novel for it to be an important element. Like another Christie novel, 4:50 from Paddington (aka What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw), Josephine Bell's Bones in the Barrow relies on what a witness sees from his train window to set the wheels of justice in motion. Terry Byrnes is making his slow way to work aboard a train to London. Progress is slow because a crippling fog has made visibility near zero. For just a moment the fog clears as the train sits and waits and Byrnes stares out the window while he contemplates how angry his boss will be over his extreme lateness. He has an unimpeded view of a row of houses along the track. The scene that unfolds before him is like a murderous silent film.

....framed in his hole in the fog, all the dirty windows of the four or five houses were empty. At the next, he saw in one of them the distorted face and frantic figure of a woman. She was in a state of extreme terror; that was clear from her fixed staring eyes and desperate snatching fingers. She was trying to throw up the window....This in absolute silence, as far as Terry was concerned, the window being shut, and the fog all round, still and deep....For a few seconds the woman fought the window. Then Terry saw a dark shape behind her in the unlighted room. She turned her head, her mouth opening in a scream as she did so. A hand struck, and she toppled forward....

By the time he understands what he's seeing, the fog closes in and the train starts moving. There's no time to make any of his fellow passengers see what he's seen. Already very late and reluctant to look foolish before the authorities, Byrnes doesn't report the incident until much later that evening. Chief Inspector Johnson is the only one who takes him seriously, but even he has difficulty finding evidence of any foul play. A number of other suspicious incidents will have to be reported before the event can be properly investigated and solved--but Johnson always comes back to that first report of violence witnessed from a train window.

Shroud of Darkness by E. C. R. Lorac also begins with a train ride through one of the worst fogs that England, and particularly London, has seen in "half a century." Riding in the same train car we have an upset young man, a psychiatrist's secretary, a large female writer with a deep voice, a businessman who looks very stockbrokerish, and an "eel-like," unsavoury young man who looks a bit like a racing tout. At journey's end the agitated young man is left for dead in the black, "monster of a fog" and the police have one monster of a mystery on their hands. After being beaten sensless, the victim's pockets are rifled and his haversack stolen and the police find themselves faced with a nameless injured man on an evening of near solid blackout when nobody could be expected to notice anybody or anything. 

Once again, the police have to start with very little information beyond what the victim's fellow-travelers can tell them. Fortunately, the secretary and the businessman both prove to be excellent witnesses and Inspector MacDonald identifies the young man fairly quickly as Richard Greville. But discovering who he is doesn't answer all the questions and MacDonald still needs to find out what about that train journey resulted in the attack on the man. Did Greville recognize someone from his past? Or did something else happen? There are other clues to follow, but MacDonald keeps that train journey in mind throughout the book.

As might be suspected by the title, a train trip also plays an important part in Night Train to Paris by Manning Coles. Edward Logan is a stuffy, predictable, highly respectable businessman who just happens to get himself mixed up with secret plans and Russian spies and is killed when he tries to keep out their way by planning an unexpected trip to his brother Laurence in Paris.

Laurence is baffled by the odd request. Every time his brother has visited, it has been arranged long in advance, down to the last detail. His brother never does anything on the spur of the moment. Edward is very mysterious and will only tell him that it's a matter of life and death and that all will be explained when he sees Laurence. Laurence's bewilderment increases when he arrives at the station late to find an almost empty train and no sign of his brother. He heads to Edward's compartment and finds his luggage, passport, tickets, and hotel reservations laid out for custom inspection but Edward has vanished without a trace! Before he can decide what to do, the conductor comes and addresses him as Mr. Edward Logan. 

Laurence spends the rest of the book masquerading as his brother and trying to determine what happened before and during that fateful train journey. We know--because we watched Edward from the entrance of the Russian spies to his last moments on the train--but it is still highly entertaining to watch Laurence puzzle things out and, assisted by Britain's master spy Tommy Hambledon, outwit the Russians in the end. Given the reader's knowledge, the focus of this book on the train journey is slightly different from those previously highlighted. In Night Train, the reader isn't trying to figure out what happened to whom (along with the detective), but are waiting to see what Laurence and Tommy must do to solve Edward's disappearance and how soon they will figure it out.

This is my fourth offering in Noah's October 8 Challenge. Noah is a Golden Age Detection (GAD) aficionado and one of my Vintage Mystery Challengers and he's put together a Bingo-style Golden Age mystery essay challenge of his own. It's beginning to look like I just might get that Bingo after all...one more square to go!



Bev Hankins said...

Bell's book is just a shade on the wrong side of 1950, but she writes some very GAD-style mysteries.

neer said...

Very interesting Bev. I love mysteries that have train journeys and now after reading your post I want to pick-up one immediately. Lorac's Shroud of Darkness seems very interesting.

There is a very recent book: THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN that everyone is raving about. Have you read it?

Jacquie said...

I, too, love train mysteries. Throw in fog or snow and it's just too wonderful. It's that closed circle of suspects, though there's always the chance that someone got on or off the train to throw a monkey wrench into any theory. I haven't read any of these so thanks for another great post!

TracyK said...

A very nice post, Bev. I like mysteries on trains, Golden Age or later. A favorite topic of mine.

TracyK said...
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