Before the advent of automobile and air travel, railroads were the way travel long distances. As early as the mid-1860s, both coasts in the United States were joined by rail. By the 1930s, railway travel brought cities closer together both in America and Europe and had a certain romance to it. At the same time motion pictures were gaining in popularity, so it did not take long for trains to find their way to the big screen and attract the attention of movie directors such as Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock directed two motion pictures set at on trains: The Lady Vanishes and Strangers on a Train. In the first movie, based on Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins (Not available on Cardinal*), the plot centers around a elderly English lady disappearing off a train in Central Europe in the time leading up to World War II. The setting is in a small fictional country in Central or Eastern Europe with a dictatorial government. A British agent on the train must get a message back to London.
The idea of switching murders with a complete stranger is the plot twist behind Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel Strangers on a Train, made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Imagine meeting a stranger on a train, or anywhere else for that matter; having a conversation about people you know you would like to see dead. Then the other person suggest you murder his person and he kill yours. That’s what happens to Guy Haines when he meets up with Charles Anthony Bruno in Patricia Highsmith’s story and Alfred Hitchcock’s film. (spoilers ahead) As usual, there are differences when a book is brought to the screen. For example, Bruno (Robert Walker) murders Guy’s estranged wife on page 81, while in the movie that happens near the end. Another example is Guy(Farley Granger)’s occupation; in the book, he is an architect and the movie, a professional tennis player. Additionally, in the movie, to get past the censors of the 1950s, Guy has to double-cross Bruno and not kill Bruno’s father, like he does the book. In the book and the movie, Bruno eventually dies. In the former, guilt overtakes Guy and he turns himself in.
Agatha Christie wrote three mysteries set on trains, two featuring her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the most famous of which is Murder on the Orient Express. Poirot is traveling on the Orient Express from Istanbul back to England, when the train gets stuck in a snowdrift in Yugoslavia. An American passenger is murdered and as there are no police on the train Poirot is charged with solving the case. What he discovers is the victim was traveling using an assumed name and is wanted for a ghastly crime back in the States. The other passengers in the coach, despite their varied nationalities all seem to have a connection that crime. The story was made into a movie in 1974, starring Albert Finney as Poirot and an all-star cast. Masterpiece Mystery had a better version (in my opinion) as a part of a tv series, with David Suchet as the Belgian detective.
The 4:50 from Paddington, which was filmed as Murder She Said, has Jane Marple doing the sleuthing. In the book a friend of Miss Jane Marple witnesses a murder on a passing train, but when she reports crime to the authorities, she is not believed. The two women figure out the body must have been dumped off the train at some point. Miss Marple figures out where and hires a young woman to take a position at a nearby estate to search for the body. (In the movie version, Miss Marple sees the murder and does the investigation herself.) The body is discovered and New Scotland Yard is called in and the investigation broadens geographically. Needless to say, Miss Marple helps the police find the murderer. As usual with Christie stories, red herrings abound!
A favorite plot of mystery and screen writers is to combine murder mysteries set on trains with stolen jewels. Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes movie, Terror in the Night, is one of these; Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train is another. In the former, based on parts of number Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Holmes is hired to protect a valuable jewel while he, the owner and her son ride the train overnight in England. The son is murdered and the jewel stolen. The murderer has a number of tricks up his (gender neutral) sleeve to throw the famous detective of the scent, but in the end Holmes prevails.
The Blue Train, or the train Bleu, ran from Calais on French coast of the English Channel to Nice on the Riviera. It was the train very wealthy traveled on to winter on the Riviera. In this story, Poirot faces a radically different puzzle that he tried find the solution to on the Orient Express. The basic plot concerns Rufus Van Aldin, who gives his daughter, Ruth Kettering, an expensive jewel. As she travels on the Blue Train, she is found murdered and the jewel is missing. As usual in Christie’s stories, people are not always who or what they first appear to be.
In Paula Hawkins recent best-selling novel Girl on a Train, the chief character commutes to London on a train that goes past the house where she used to live with her ex-husband. The train always has to stop behind one of the neighboring houses and one day she notices the woman who lives there with a different man. A few days later, reads in a newspaper that woman has disappeared and she goes to the police. When they don’t believe her, she gets more involved in the case, bringing her ex and his current spouse into the plot. Without giving the plot away, let’s say the chief character has issues. I’ll bet this one makes to it to the big screen as well.
*Available from Amazon in the Kindle format