From the iconic Murder on the Orient Express through to modern day thrillers, Crime Fiction as a genre is saturated with depictions of trains. They act both as a conveyor of characters, as regularly portrayed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as an ideal setting for a ‘locked room’ mystery, with characters often becoming trapped on board with a dead body and only a handful of potential suspects, such as the aforementioned Murder on the Orient Express.
Even contemporary novels, such as the bestselling The Girl on the Train incorporate the more modern transportation we are used to; sans compartments, trains still hold a fascination and act as a superb trope for the genre.
This, to me, has always seemed a strange phenomenon. Why not buses? Or plains? Neither is so heavily involved in crime fiction as a genre than the humble train.
Central to this plethora of trains in Crime Fiction is the changing space trains have held in the genre. When first introduced they were a new, exciting way to travel, and they represented a great way for both the wealthy and those with less money to travel, leading to an unheard of social combination. Many trains, such as the Orient Express, were designed for pleasure, in the form of a sort of over-land cruise.
With the scenic nature of the train, combined with the mixture of social classes that it created, made it the perfect setting for clandestine crimes and genteel investigations held by intrepid detectives. Many Crime Fiction writers right from the beginning used the train in their writing, but it became a true symbol during the Golden Age; everyone from Christie through to Sayers used the train, usually to convey their detectives and companions to a new destination whilst allowing for exposition in the form of conversations during the journey.
Nowadays they represent a very different social situation; typically, as with The Girl on the Train, they are now seen as a purely functional means of transportation, reserved primarily for school children and professionals travelling to and from work. Writers such as Greenwood, who write novels set in the past, in her case the 1920s, draw on the same notions of old fashioned wonderment at the train as a mode of transport and social collision.
Anonymity is also vital to the modern fascination with the train in Crime Fiction. The Girl on the Train leverages this as its central plot point, with the protagonist merely a passing face on a fast moving train. In a world that is increasingly difficult to escape from, with cameras tracking our every move and technology following every click we make and every call we take, it makes sense that the idea of being a faceless, nameless passenger on a fast moving train makes for a creepy contrast to the more intrusive outside world.
Going forward, as the trend for digitalisation makes trains even more anonymous, with passengers often buried in anything from books and newspapers through to laptops, iPods and tablet computers, the next wave of Crime Fiction could remain on the tracks as writers depict their characters’ crimes as being masked by this deliberate avoidance of human contact. After all, it would be startlingly easy to hide a murder in plain sight on a packed tube carriage with every listening to their headphones or yelling into their mobiles. As such, it is my opinion that trains in Crime Fiction are not going anywhere.
One thought on “Trains in Crime Fiction: What’s the Fascination?”
Great post. For me earlier novels featuring trains always have a better atmosphere and feel much more like an adventure in comparison to modern train journeys in fiction which as you say are more commuters with their gadgets. Got a few train set mysteries coming up in my reading as with your post in mind I’ll be looking at how they are done more closely as they are not all from the same era.