Here’s a full transcript of the twenty-third episode of Shedunnit.
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[Train sound effect]
Caroline: It’s an iconic mystery setting, almost to the point of cliche, reproduced in lovingly nostalgic detail in films and TV adaptations. The panelled walls of polished wood, deep carpets, comfortable seats covered in plush velvet, and attendants in sharp uniforms, ready to cater to the passengers’ every whim. There’s something so linear and definite about a train journey — it can only take you from A to B, with no possible deviations. Except when murder intervenes, and throws everything off the rails.
Trains were a very popular setting for detective novelists in the 1920s and 30s. Railways had become sufficiently ubiquitous that the details of train travel was recognisable, even mundane, for readers, yet the luxury trans continental routes like the Orient Express were still in their glory days to provide a bit of glamorous escapism for those who couldn’t quite afford to book a first class sleeper from Paris to Constantinople at a moment’s notice. A train is a mobile locked room, with a limited cast of passengers who can’t escape, and a timetable governing its every move. It’s no wonder, really, that authors found the railways so inspiring.
It’s time to find your seat. The train is about to depart. Let’s see what awaits us on the journey.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. On this episode, we’re going to learn about how such a strong connection was forged between train travel and detective fiction, examine some examples where it was used to best effect, and explore a few theories about why it works so very well.
First, a bit of background and a few parameters before we get started. I’m going to be talking here about train-based mysteries that are set in Britain, or written by authors based there. I’m aware that different countries have different histories and traditions when it comes to trains and to storytelling, but for the purposes of examining the intersection of railway stories and golden age detective fiction here, we’re going to stick largely to the UK and Europe, since that’s the area that the authors of this period were concentrating on too.
Before there could be mysteries set on trains, there had to be trains. The first intercity train line in the UK ran between Manchester and Liverpool and began operating in September 1830. It quickly put the road-based stagecoach service out of business, since the train reduced the travel time between the two cities to just two hours. A lot of the techniques pioneered on this line — such as transporting mail bags, signally, and running special excursion trains to take people to the races — were quickly picked up by the other lines that were being built all over the country. Britain fell in love with rail, both as a means of transport and as a vehicle for financial speculation. The 1840s brought with it a kind of national infrastructure obsession that was dubbed “railway mania”, as hundreds of new companies secured permission to build new lines all over the country. By 1870, Britain had about 13,500 miles of track.
This piecemeal, entirely private way of developing a rail network lead to lots of small, independent lines that all ran their own timetables, operated their own rolling stock and hired their own staff. If you’ve ever read a nineteenth century novel (or a Sherlock Holmes story, for instance) you’ll probably remember as scene where a character needs to make a journey and asks someone to pass them the “Bradshaw”. This was the commonly used shorthand for “Bradshaw’s Railway Time Tables and Assistant to Railway Travelling”, a series of travelling guides that amalgamated all the available timetables and routes so that a passenger could easily look up a cross country journey without having to contact each company individually. It was first published in 1839, and continued to exist under that name well into the twentieth century, although the original cartographer George Bradshaw died in 1853.
By 1914, there were about 20,000 miles of rail track in Britain. Several major cities even had underground railways — the London Underground opened in 1863, and was followed by much smaller but similar systems in Liverpool in 1886 and Glasgow in 1896. But the chaotic, buccaneering capitalism that had allowed so many different railway companies to proliferate was calming down. There were still 120 different companies operating, although the rail network had been put under temporary state control during the First World War. In 1921 a law was passed that amalgamated these companies into a handful of smaller entities, and in 1923 the so-called “Big Four” of the Great Western Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway and Southern Railway took control of the vast majority of rail travel in Britain.
All of which is a long winded way of saying that by the time some of our most famous fictional sleuths started to appear in the 1920s — Hercule Poirot in 1921, Lord Peter Wimsey in 1923, Albert Campion and Mrs Bradley in 1929, Roderick Alleyn in 1934 and so on, train travel was an affordable and accessible part of everyday life in Britain. More than that, they were already established as an essential tool of the detective. Think about how many times Conan Doyle has Holmes and Watson take a hansom cab from Baker Street to one of the London stations, in order to catch a train that will take them out of the metropolis and deep into the countryside where a mystery awaits. A compartment in a train becomes a kind of mobile version of Holmes’s consulting room, as he prepares himself on the train for what he might find upon arrival. We get a glimpse of this in ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’ from 1892, when Watson tells the reader that “We had the carriage to ourselves save for an immense litter of papers which Holmes had brought with him. Among these he rummaged and read, with intervals of note-taking and of meditation, until we were past Reading. Then he suddenly rolled them all into a gigantic ball and tossed them up onto the rack.” The train takes the detective where he needs to go, smoothly obeying the dictates of timetable and track, an ordered contrast with the chaos of murder and violence.
As with any kind of new, society-changing technology, it took a while for most writers to find a way of incorporating rail travel into their fiction in an organic, natural way. Conan Doyle was certainly a pioneer in this regard. I would compare this process with the attempts of today’s fiction writers to come to terms with the arrival of smart phones – how many contemporary novels have you read where people actually text in a way you recognise from your own life? It’s an ongoing process.
In a trio of essays from 1901 titled “The Fallow Fields of Fiction”, the novelist and critic Arnold Bennett published a rallying cry for his fellow writers to pay more attention to the railways and their impact on human life. “The romance, the humanity, and the passions of a great railway system seemed to rise up and overwhelm us… Is not the whole system worth a novel, worth a whole school of novels?… It throbs from end to end with ‘human interest’, you simply can’t get away from humanity on a railway.”
One of the first from the sphere of detective fiction to take on this challenge wholeheartedly was a clergyman named Victor Whitechurch. He was a prolific author, publishing and editing lots of books on religious and other subjects. But most relevantly for our purposes today, he was also a passionate railway enthusiast and a regular contributor on the subject of trains in the early 1900s to Railway magazine and similar publications. In 1903, Pearson’s Weekly published a short story of Whitechurch’s titled “The Investigations of Godfrey Page, Railwayac”, which introduced the first railway detective to the reading public. (Railwayac, by the way, is a strange contraction formed from “railway” and “maniac”, and I think we can all agree that it doesn’t really work as a word.)
Godfrey Page is an amateur sleuth, with no affiliation to any police force or inquiry bureau. Rather, he’s just a private citizen who knows an awful lot about trains who has gained a reputation for being able to solve seemingly unsolvable problems on the railways. Each story usually seems him called in by a train company after a crime has been committed within their jurisdiction, and after some investigation Page is usually able to offer an explanation to the mystery. He deals with murder, robbery, smuggling and occasional espionage, and in each case the denouement arrives because of Page’s wide and deep knowledge of trains, timetables and the routines of railway staff. The Page investigations have a fair bit in common with Conan Doyle’s writing — think of them as a sort of transition between Doyle stories like ‘The Bruce Partington Papers’ and ‘The Lost Special’ and later whodunnits like Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington. Whitechurch was an early member of the Detection Club, by the way, and he contributed a competent early chapter to the club’s round robin novel The Floating Admiral — there’s more on that in episode 12 of this podcast.
Whitechurch didn’t stop at just one railway sleuth. He added a second, publishing magazine stories about a vegetarian fitness obsessive called Thorpe Hazell, who like Page acts purely as a private individual but is frequently called in by railway companies to help them out of sticky situations. The Hazell tales were collected in a 1912 volume called Thrilling Stories of the Railway, and as with Page there’s a mixed bag of robbery, fraud, murder, smuggling and espionage for the detective to deal with. Hazell is a more distinctive character than Page though — he’s a kind of Edwardian wellness guru, constantly trying to get others to try his weird regime of plasmon biscuits and arm swinging exercises — and probably for that reason he has a bit more of an afterlife, with reprints and radio adaptations. But his skills are just as acute as Page’s, and the position he occupies is the same. If the railways are a new world, then there are new criminals and new detectives needed to keep them in check.
After the break: meet the train nerd who turned the railway mystery into an art form.
Welcome to the intermission. Today, I’m really excited to say that I’ve booked the first Shedunnit live shows, and if you’re quick about it, you can get tickets to come and see me doing this on a stage instead of in the cupboard off my bedroom. Both shows are a collaboration with Conor Reid from Words To That Effect, who you heard on this feed over the summer. You can catch us twice — on 15 November at The Podcast Studios in Dublin as part of the Dublin Podcast Festival, and on 1 February 2020 at the PodUK convention in Birmingham. Tickets for both are available now, and you can find the links to purchase at shedunnitshow.com/events. I’m hoping to be able to do a kind of Shedunnit meet up alongside both shows as well, so if you’re planning to come make sure you’re following the show on social media to get the details of that closer to the time, it’s @shedunnitshow on all the relevant platforms. Hope to see you there! Now, back to the show.
Freeman Wills Crofts was born in Dublin in 1879. After finishing school he was apprenticed to an engineer working for the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway, and over the two decades he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Chief Assistant Engineer for the London, Midland and Scottish railway company in Northern Ireland. In 1919 he had to take an extended break from work while he convalesced from illness, and during that enforced idleness he tried his hand at writing a detective story. The resulting novel was published the next year as The Cask, a 400-page epic that uses train timetables and routes to create a complex plot that eventually unravels in a most satisfactory way. The story opens with a shocking discovery: some workers on the docks in London are unloading a cargo of casks from Paris when they drop one and it splits open slightly. Through the crack they can see that there are gold sovereigns inside, but also what looks like the hand of a dead woman. An Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard, a highly methodical and in some ways quite boring sleuth, is put on the case. He soon draws up a suspect list, but it takes a lot of work for him to get to the solution. This book also contains what would later become Crofts’ trademark — the unbreakable alibi that can only be cracked through intimate knowledge of train timetables and travel itineraries.
Crofts used his decades of experience on the railways to his advantage as a novelist, constructing a plot at once both complicated and simple, which yielded only under the force of hard, methodical detection. He’s sometimes credited as the originator of what we now call the police procedural, because for his detectives there are no wild hunches or sudden flashes of inspiration, just a lot of legwork and eliminating of possibilities until the true explanation is revealed. The Cask was a bestseller in his day, and by the end of the 1920s its author was able to give up his job as an engineer and devote himself to writing full time. He and his wife moved to Surrey in England and by the time he died in 1957, he had published dozens more novels and short stories. A lot of them include elements from his days working on the railways in Ireland, and even published a book in 1946 titled Death of a Train.
Because of his focus on the supposedly mundane details of things like train timetables and journey times in order to construct his plots, Freeman Wills Crofts is sometimes considered by critics to be a boring writer, compared to fellow authors like Christie and Sayers who devoted more words to characterisation, setting and the moral dimension of their stories. Julian Symons, who was a mystery writer himself but is probably best known today for his reviews and criticism about the genre, published a book called Bloody Murder in 1972 in which he identified a group of authors that he called the “Humdrums”. He theorised that the so called Humdrums existed as a separate subgenre of detective writing, distinct from the work of Christie, Sayers, Marsh and so on, and which gave distinctly less pleasure to readers that came upon it decades after it was published. Symons revisited this idea a lot in reviews and essays as well as in his 1972 book, but Freeman Wills Crofts was almost always mentioned as being a founder member of this humdrum school. Merely writing puzzles, rather than pushing crime writer further into thematic development, Symons suggested, was a lesser art form.
In his 2012 book Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery, Curtis J Evans reappraises the work of Crofts and the other principle Humdrums, and points out the fallacies and discrepancies in Symons’s original designation. He focuses in on Freeman Wills Crofts, John Rhode and JJ Connington as the trio most in need of rehabilitation after Symons’s disapprobation. Further, Evans points out that as well as writing very pleasurable puzzles, these authors were also all people with vocational experience, such as Crofts’ work as an engineer on the railways, and as such their works provide a very different insight into society during the golden age when compared with the work of the Queens of Crime, say. It’s a brilliant book and there’s so much in there that I don’t have space to get into know — I highly recommend that you seek it out.
The rules and systems of the railway, then, could provide a puzzle-minded detective author with great opportunities when it came to constructing alibis and ingenious solutions. But there are other aspects to trains too that appealed to writers. One that cropped up more in the nineteenth century was just the sheer danger involved in such a fast moving, powerful vehicle — think that image from the early era of cinema where a struggling woman is tied to the tracks ahead of a speeding locomotive. While the “train as murder weapon” plot doesn’t surface that often, you can find it sometimes in the work of Victor Whitechurch, who occasionally has criminals attempt to deliberately cause a collision for nefarious purposes, and other authors with a more sensational bent to their work. John Oxenham, the pseudonym of journalist William Arthur Dunkerley, worked with this sense of danger in a slightly different way. In his short story “A Mystery of the Underground” published in 1897, he invented a serial killer who somehow manages to shoot people travelling inside sealed carriages on the London Underground, while the train is between stations. It’s really genuinely very spooky, even to today’s reader, and caused something of a mass panic at the time of its publication, with passenger numbers on the District Line dropping until the serialisation of the story was complete and the killer “caught”.
Another, slightly more esoteric, way of incorporating a train into a plot surfaces in Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington from 1957 — not strictly golden age, of course, but bear with me here because this is one of my favourite novels, ever, end of. In this story, Christie takes a railway scenario we’ve all experienced at some point on our travels, when the train we’re in runs parallel with another one for a while, so you can see other passengers in the other train alongside you. In her version, a friend of Miss Marple’s has this happen on a journey, and while idly looking through the window she sees a woman being strangled to death in the other train, but of course is powerless to do anything about it because the two trains then head off on separate lines, and by the time she can alert the authorities, the murderer has already disposed of the body. Miss Marple uses some techniques that Freeman Wills Crofts himself would be proud of to work out which train her friend observed and therefore where the body might be, and a fascinating whodunnit unfolds from that setup. It’s certainly an original premise for a mystery, and a brilliant one in that observing other passengers in another train like that is such a mundane, recognisable event, which Christie then skilfully transforms into a murder plot. The same goes for The ABC Murders from 1936, where Christie uses her readers’ familiarity with the conventional railway guide to construct a sinister serial killing plot.
A far more common use of trains in detective fiction is one I mentioned in the introduction to this episode: the railway carriage as a kind of mobile locked room. You find variations of this everywhere in novels from the 1920s and 30s — someone is found dead in a train compartment, but there’s no way a murderer could have entered because the corridor was under surveillance the whole time and the train was moving. Agatha Christie used this device a couple of times, in 1928’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, for instance, as well as more famously in 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express. In the latter, the enclosed nature of the sleeper car where the murder takes place also means that Hercule Poirot has a very limited cast of suspects to consider — also a very useful consequence of the setting. This is one of Christie’s most famous stories, and its popularity has a lot to do with the luxurious nature of its setting, a mode of travel that most of her readers would probably never experience. Christie, however, was writing from direct experience (of the train that is, not the murder).
She writes in her autobiography about how she had wanted to go on the Orient Express her whole life. “When I had travelled to France or Spain or Italy, the Orient Express had often been standing at Calais, and I had longed to climb up into it. . . I was bitten.” In 1928, after her divorce from her first husband Archie was at last finalised, Agatha was in the mood to travel, to shake off the grim aspects of her life over the past 18 months, and start afresh. Archie, by the way, had left her in late 1926 to be with another woman, which had in turn triggered Agatha’s infamous disappearance and the nationwide hunt for her. The separation had dragged out for so long because Agatha was still hopeful that Archie might come back to her, but at a final meeting between them he declared that he “wanted madly to be happy, and couldn’t be happy unless I can get married to Nancy”. Agatha finally called her lawyers, and accepted that that part of her life was over. She booked tickets to the West Indies and Jamaica, planning to spend time in the sun and come back to a fresh beginning.
Except, at the last minute, a chance conversation over dinner brought the idea of the Orient Express steaming into her mind again. She changed her plans, and five days later was on board, on her way to Baghdad. The train represented freedom and independence for her — she wrote that “It’s now or never. Either I cling to everything that’s safe and that I know, or else I develop more initiative, do things on my own.” She had little experience of solo travel or the Middle East, but she took the train and trusted that she would cope. As it turns out, that decision to go east not west was pivotal in more ways than one. The train itself provided Christie with the setting for one of her most popular and influential novels, and she also picked up details for a host of other stories along the way. It was also on that trip that she was to meet her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, and get her first taste of a part of the world that was going to play a big part in their lives in the decades to come.
Its railway setting also makes Murder on the Orient Express a popular choice for theatre, film and television adaptations — there was another major film one just a couple of years ago, starring Kenneth Branagh’s awful moustache as Hercule Poirot. The luxury travel element of the story situates it in both a recognisable and a nostalgic dimension. Trains also have a long pedigree when it comes to stories of suspense, rather than murder — think of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, or Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. Both have become highly successful films I think for similar reasons that they worked on the page, a pacy improbable story with an element that firmly connects them to the real world. Who knows, the next time you get on a commuter train, you might meet a spy fleeing his pursuers, or meet someone who wants to trade murders with you. The Wheel Spins written by Ethel Lina White and published in 1936 is also a fantastic example of the railway suspense novel that translated brilliantly to the screen. It was filmed in 1938 by Alfred Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes, and has subsequently been adapted a fair bit under that name. In it, a young woman meets an older one on a train travelling across Europe and has lunch with her in the dining car, but then the older woman vanishes and nobody on the train has any recollection of ever seeing her. She can’t have got off the train, but she also doesn’t appear to be on it. Not strictly a whodunnit in the golden age sense, perhaps, but a spectacular railway mystery all the same.
And the tradition of the railway story is by no means one that is confined to the past. Authors are still turning out thrillers involving trains that sell thousands of copies, such as Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train from 2015, which was also adapted for the big screen the following year. There’s even a popular historical series about a railway detective, written by author Keith Miles under the pseudonym Edward Marston, which follows an Inspector Colbeck who solves crimes on the British rail network in the 1850s. Being able to look up the time table on the internet might have slightly dented the possibilities of the train mystery, but it’s a tradition that continues to go from strength to strength nonetheless.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/offtherails. There, you can also read a full transcript.
Don’t forget that if you’d like to hear a version of the show without interruption, advertising or intermission, you can do that by joining the Shedunnit Book Club. As well as ad free listening, there are also bonus episodes. Find more details and sign up at shedunnitshow.com/membership.
I’ll be back on 16 October with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Sidekicks