Recent Events

Thursday, 4 June 2020

The Golden Age

Trains and Boats and Planes and a couple of coaches
in Golden Age Detection.
by Carol Westron

In the early 20th Century, trains had become an accepted means of transport but for many people passenger air travel was still an exciting novelty. Ships had started taking passengers on pleasure trips in the mid-19th Century, and the first purpose-built cruise ship was constructed in 1900, but at the start of the Golden Age all forms of travel had been seriously impacted by the First World War, especially travel for leisure.
Nevertheless, it did not take long for the more enterprising authors to spot the potential of trains and boats, especially cruise ships, as settings for their fictional crimes. This article is not a definitive list of all the times Golden Age writers used trains, boats and planes in detective fiction, but rather a whistle stop tour (forgive the pun) of some of the more interesting and  inventive uses of these vehicles.

One of the first crime fiction authors to specialise in stories set on or around trains was publishing before the First World War. Victor L. Whitechurch, wrote a series of short stories that were originally published in the Strand Magazine, Railway Magazine, Pearson’s Magazine and Harmsworth’s Magazine. These were subsequently published as a book in 1912 under the title Thrilling Stories of the Railway. Whitechurch must have come to regret this title as, twenty years later, he bemoaned the idea that detective stories were often confused with thrillers because ‘A “Thriller” by its very name, is a story full of exciting incidents’, (Foreword to Murder at the College, 1933). Few of Whitechurch’s railway stories could be described as thrilling, many of them are interesting puzzles with a technical twist, while some can be classed as a comedy of manners and do not have any crime content at all.  However, there is one aspect of Whitechurch’s Thrilling Stories of the Railway that is unique, and that is his creation of what Ellery Queen described as ‘the first of the speciality detectives.’ Whitechurch’s amateur detective, Thorpe Hazell, specialises in railway crimes. Also, Whitchurch can claim to have invented one of the first truly idiosyncratic fictional detectives. Sherlock Holmes may have had been unconventional but when it comes to being eccentric, faddy and generally irritating Thorpe Hazell makes Holmes and Poirot look like non-starters.

The Golden Age author who is most often thought of in connection with transport is Freeman Wills Crofts. An engineer by profession, Crofts habitually brings trains, boats and planes into his books, and the investigations of his detective, Inspector French, are heavily based on timetables. However, Crofts usually used trains in a conventional way, as a means of establishing or breaking a suspect’s alibi, although his use of boats and planes as scenes of crime is more innovative.

It could be argued that the Golden Age author who fully exploited the possibilities of trains, boats and planes as a perfect venue for murder was the ever-inventive Agatha Christie. Christie loved travel and frequently returned to a storyline in which a lively heroine sets off for adventure in foreign parts, often with little money in her purse and even less idea of where her adventure will take her. In The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) Christie’s intrepid heroine, Anne Beddingfield, has a journey that encompasses many styles of transport. Anne’s adventure begins when she witnesses the death of a man who falls onto the electrified train lines in a London underground station. Anne’s pursuit of the truth behind this death leads her to a voyage on the passenger ship, the Kilmorden Castle, with its attendant perils of wounded young men taking refuge in her cabin and villains trying to throw her overboard. Not content with this, no sooner has she disembarked than she sets off on a train journey across South Africa in company with many of the people who had been on board ship with her. Christie’s skill in conjuring up the ambience of a place is clear when, in the midst of some lively and perilous events, her heroine makes time to describe the journey and to glory in the wooden carved models that the natives are eager to sell when the train stops.
‘Suzanne and I were nearly left behind at each station – if you could call them stations. It seemed to me that the train just stopped whenever it felt like it, and no sooner had it done so than a hoard of natives materialised out of the empty landscape, holding up mealie bowls and sugar canes and fur karosses and adorable carved wooden animals. Suzanne began at once to make a collection of the latter. I imitated her example – most if them cost a “tiki” (threepence) and each was different. There were giraffes and tigers and snakes and a melancholy-looking eland and absurd little black warriors. We enjoyed ourselves enormously.’

In The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) Christie uses the train in a conventional way as the scene of a murder in a story that is dependant on one of Christie’s clever conjuring tricks with identity and alibis. However, even at this early point in her writing career, it seems probable that Christie saw the possibilities of using the train as a convenient gathering ground for suspects. This came to fruition in 1934 when Christie’s glorious mix of passengers boarded the Orient Express, in company with an unexpected late arrival, Hercule Poirot. In Murder on the Orient Express, Christie creates the perfect confined mystery, by using a public transport vehicle, albeit a luxurious one, to gather together a mixed, and apparently unconnected group of travellers, commit a murder and then isolate them when the train becomes snowbound.

Throughout her writing career, Christie set many of her stories on trains, or had a train journey as an integral part of the action. In 1934 she published two short story collections, The Listerdale Mystery and Parker Pyne Investigates. The Listerdale Mystery contains mainly, although not exclusively, stories that are more romance than crime stories, and one of these is the slight but amusing The Girl on the Train. Parker Pyne’s adventures begin as stories of how the omniscient, ex-Civil Servant, Mr Parker Pyne, solves his clients’ dissatisfaction with their lives, but soon Parker Pyne the detective emerges. In The Case of the City Clerk (1934), Parker Pyne sends his client, a meek but courageous clerk, on a train journey that will give him something to remember for the rest of his life. In Have You Got All You Want? (1934) Parker Pyne takes a more active role in his client’s drama and travels on the Orient Express in the same year as Hercule Poirot took his famous journey.

One of Christie’s most innovative uses of a train in a murder plot is The 4.50 From Paddington (1957), in which Mrs McGillicuddy has an experience common to many rail users, that of travelling alongside another train and seeing what is going on in the parallel carriages. However, it is not a common experience to see a young woman being strangled. The assailant’s back is to Mrs McGillicuddy and she cannot see his face, nor is he aware that his crime has been witnessed. When Mrs McGillicuddy reports what she has seen to the authorities, a search fails to discover the young woman’s body and her tale is dismissed as the product of an overactive imagination. Fortunately, Mrs McGillicuddy is travelling to visit her friend, Miss Marple, and that shrewd investigator is determined to discover the truth.

Another clever use of the train as a setting for murder was described in J.C. Lenehan’s The Tunnel Mystery (1929). David Hyde, a Hatton Garden diamond merchant, is travelling back from Yorkshire to London, bearing with him a valuable diamond necklace that he has just purchased. He travels by train, in a third-class carriage because he believes this will make him less obvious as a target for thieves. Several other people also seat themselves in the compartment. The train is plunged into darkness as it goes through a tunnel and, when it emerges on the other side, Hyde has been shot dead. Nobody in the carriage will admit to having heard the shot and the angle of the wound makes it impossible that any of them could have shot him, what is more, the weapon is nowhere to be found. Later, when the police search Hyde’s body, the diamond necklace he was carrying has disappeared.

In Murder Underground (1934) Mavis Doriel Hay uses not the train but the underground railway station as a setting for murder, and skilfully evokes the haunting loneliness of the long walk up the stairs to ground level and the vulnerability of the sole passenger leaving the station at that point.

Trains are not Ngaio Marsh’s most popular venues for crime, however she does have an attempted murder in Vintage Murder (1937), in which a victim is almost pushed from a train. Although Roderick Alleyn has his suspicions, it only becomes obvious that this was a murder attempt when the unfortunate victim is killed in a far more flamboyant manner.
Many authors used trains as an integral part of their plots. In Josephine Tey’s first detective novel, The Man in the Queue (1929), she used a train journey from Scotland to London as the ‘safe space’ in which Grant’s prime suspect could tell him his story, with the result that Grant’s conviction regarding the man’s guilt is shaken and he reinvestigates.

In Tey’s last novel, The Singing Sands, published posthumously in 1953, she uses a train as the anonymous, transitory place in which a body is discovered. It is interesting to note that this final journey for Grant is in the reverse direction from the one described in his first chronicled adventure, this time travelling from London to Scotland.

Boats in all their sizes and guises have been used as a convenient place for murder. The smallest of which must be the canoe that features as the scene of crime in Mavis Doriel Hay’s Death on the Cherwell (1935). The drifting canoe is secured by four young female students of Persephone College, who swiftly realise that the occupant is their bursar.
‘They dragged the canoe in alongside a punt. In it lay a woman stretched at full length beneath the thwarts and partly covered by a long tweed coat. Her green jersey and tweed skirt were sodden and her wet, fair hair was looped rakishly over one eye and streaked across her pallid face that was smeared with dark mud. Her partly open mouth and the one free eye horribly upturned, gaped vacantly.
“She’s drowned!” gasped Gwyneth in a frightened whisper.
“How can anyone drown in a canoe?” demanded Sally severely.’

Victor L. Whitechurch used a small yacht as his scene of crime in The Templeton Case (1924); while in Mystery in the Channel (1931), Freeman Wills Crofts also had an investigation focused around murder in a yacht. The captain of a cross Channel steamer spots a small yacht drifting and discovers upon it the bodies of two men who are soon discovered to be absconding bankers. In Panic Party (1934) Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham is a guest on a cruise in the ultimate status symbol, a large, luxury, private yacht, with a crew employed to wait on the passengers and sail the ship. Their destination is a private island, owned by Mr Pigeon, who also owns the yacht. However, things go very wrong for the entitled passengers when the yacht sails away and leaves them stranded on the island, and worse is to follow as they believe that there is a murderer in their midst. Panic Party could be described as Sheringham’s finest hour as he alone stands resolute and decent when panic breaks out.

In the 1930s, cruise ships and larger, luxurious, pleasure yachts increased in popularity as murder venues, as if they were designed to give series detectives a welcome change of scene if not of occupation. Agatha Christie must have found it an interesting ploy to isolate an apparently unrelated group of passengers in a luxurious vehicle. In 1934, the same year that she published Murder on the Orient Express, she also  published Death On the Nile, where murder is committed on a small cruise ship travelling down the Nile. Again, by chance, Hercule Poirot is one of the passengers. It is interesting that in Parker Pyne Investigates Parker Pyne also took a pleasure trip along the Nile in a steam ship in a story published in 1934 and, like Poirot, encountered murder. It is even more intriguing that Christie called both the Poirot novel and the Parker Pyne short story by the same title, Death on the Nile.

Ngaio Marsh wrote two murder mysteries set on board two different sorts of small passenger ships: A Clutch of Constables (1970) and Singing in the Shrouds (1958). In Clutch of Constables, Alleyn’s wife, Troy ‘steps out of time’ for five days by taking a river cruise but, inevitably, out of the eight passengers, more than half are dangerous criminals and it is impossible for Troy to know who she can trust. Singing in the Shrouds is one of Marsh’s most chilling and atmospheric books. The small cruise ship Cape Farewell sails before anybody realises that one of the passengers is a serial killer, who has murdered three young women, strangling them before breaking their necklaces and strewing flowers over them, and after the murders the killer has been heard singing. Alleyn joins the Cape Farewell, travelling incognito, but despite his best efforts to protect the female passengers, the murderer strikes again.
‘The Spanish dress was spread out wide, falling in black cascades on either side of the chaise-longue. Its wearer lay back luxuriously, each gloved hand trailing on the deck. The head was impossibly twisted over the left shoulder. The face was covered down to the tip of the nose by part of the mantilla which had been dragged down like a blind. The exposed area was livid and patched almost to the colour of the mole at the corner of the mouth. The tongue protruded, the plump throat already was discoloured. Artificial pearls from a broken necklace lay scattered across the d├ęcolletage into which had been thrust a white hyacinth.’

In The Pleasure Cruise Mystery (1933) by Robin Forsythe, amateur detective Algernon Vereker is appalled by the the list of delights his friend Ricardo reads aloud from the advertising brochure,

‘“A holiday cruise in luxurious comfort. You visit lands of sunshine, mystery and romance. Dances, carnivals, fancy-dress balls, bathing pool, gymnasium, deck sports...”’
Fortunately for Vereker, a recreation that is far more to his taste soon becomes available and he is occupied in investigating a murder on board ship.

It is possible that no other author captured the world of the transatlantic cruise ship more vividly than Elizabeth Gill in her final novel before her untimely death. In Crime de Luxe (1933) Gill describes the beauty and opulence of  travelling to America on such a ship, using the viewpoint of her protagonist, Benvenuto Brown, an artist and amateur detective, on his way, for the first time, to New York to be present at his first art exhibition in America. ‘Here was the Atlanta towering before him, clean, imposing, and larger than life-size. He sighed with satisfaction as he looked at her, welcoming the suave atmosphere of opulent peace which she seemed to promise him. He congratulated himself on somewhat optimistically, having decided to travel first class... For five days no one could ring him up on the telephone – not even the post could disturb his impersonal existence. He wouldn’t speak to a soul but his steward... what bliss!’

Gill is excellent at setting atmosphere. She travelled from the UK to America by liner several times and her description of the fairy tale atmosphere of the Atlanta has a ring of authenticity.
‘Brilliant with lights, loaded with rich foods and wines, perfumes, flowers, and silks, the Atlanta carried her cargo of passengers swiftly through the dark sea. Outside on the decks couples strolled, arm-in-arm, watching the stars and the oily swell of black water. Women’s evening gowns gleamed palely against the darkness, and the scent of after-dinner cigars floated down the breeze. Inside, in the white and gold ballroom, other couples swayed to a Viennese waltz, and old women, sitting against the wall, nodded their heads in time to the music, thought of their lost youth, and prayed for a smooth passage.’
Of course, in a crime novel the fairy tale inevitably ends in a dramatic, often violent, manner.
‘The ship’s engine had stopped. Ann turned and stared at him with startled eyes, then with one accord they hurried over to the other side where a confused shouting sounded from the decks below. In a moment Benvenuto was running down the companion-way, Ann at his heels. As they reached the deck a steward rushed past them. “Man overboard!” he said. By now, the ship was alive with bells ringing and hurrying feet, and the Atlanta appeared to be turning in a field of swirling waters. With incredible speed, boats were manned and lowered, and a great searchlight, turned onto the sea, isolated a path of water in a parody of daylight, ghastly and sharpened.’

Benvenuto Brown is a compassionate and imaginative man, who feels great pity for the unfortunate victim, but the more selfish part of his mind objects to having his pleasant interlude interrupted: ‘Why, indeed, he thought peevishly, couldn’t people murder each other on dry land instead of intruding upon this pleasant and highly artificial board-ship life with their personal feuds? It seemed to him at the moment like a breach of manners.' Nevertheless, of course, Brown investigates.

Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first Golden Age authors to capture the perils of Transatlantic flight in the 1920s. In Clouds of Witness (1926) she enlivened the court scenes in which Lord Peter Wimsey’s brother is on trial for murder by his barrister describing Wimsey’s desperate race to get vital evidence to the court in time. ‘“I will explain to your lordships at once that I may be obliged to ask for an adjournment, since we are at present without an important witness and decisive piece of evidence. My lords, I hold here in my hand a cablegram from this witness – I will tell you his name; it is Lord Peter Wimsey, the brother of the accused. It was handed in yesterday at New York. I will read it to you.
He says: ‘Evidence secured. Leaving tonight with Air Pilot Grant. Sworn copy and depositions follow by S.S. Lucarnia in case accident. Hope arrive Thursday.’ My lords, at this moment this all-important witness is cleaving the air above the wide Atlantic. In this wintry weather he is braving a peril which would appal any heart but his own and that of the world-famous aviator whose help he has enlisted, so that no moment may be lost in freeing his noble brother from this terrible charge. My lords, the barometer is falling.”’
Throughout the next chapter, the testimony of other witnesses in the court is interspersed with snapshots of Wimsey’s dangerous journey. ‘Lord Peter peered out through the cold scurry of cloud. The thin struts of steel, incredibly fragile, swung slowly across the gleam and glint far below, where the wide country dizzied out and spread like a revolving map.’ … ‘Grant shouted, but the words flipped feebly away into the blackness and were lost. “What?” bawled Wimsey in his ear. He shouted again, and this time the word “juice” shot into sound and fluttered away. But whether the news was good or bad Lord Peter could not tell.’

In one of his most innovative novels, The 12.30 From Croydon (1934), Freeman Wills Crofts used a small, privately chartered aeroplane as the scene of a murder. Crofts shows his great skill as a writer in this novel because he describes the plane journey through the eyes of a young girl. Most of Crofts’ readers would have travelled by train and would understand the situation without too much explanation, but commercial air travel was still a novelty. By describing the journey from the viewpoint of a child Crofts manages to include details and sensations that he would not have been able to introduce in any other viewpoint.

Christie uses a similar technique to capture the excitement of a passenger flights in a commercial plane in Death in the Clouds (1935) by using the viewpoint of Jane Grey, a young and inexperienced stewardess. ‘Jane caught her breath. It was only her second flight. She was still capable of being thrilled. It looked – it looked as though they must run into that fence thing – no, they were off the ground – rising – rising – sweeping round – there was Le Bourget beneath them.’

Thirty-five years later, Christie offered the reader a very different snapshot of air travel, with a description that is still familiar to air passengers today. Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) was one of Christie’s last and, it must be admitted, least
convincing novels. It is a stand-alone political thriller, featuring the diplomat Sir Stafford Nye. The story opens in an airport, but this has none of the excitement and feeling of a dventure that are apparent in Christie’s earlier novels.
‘Flight 4387. Flying to Moscow. Flight 2381 bound for Egypt and Calcutta.
Journeys all over the globe. How romantic it ought to be. But there was something about the atmosphere of a Passengers’ Lounge in an airport that chilled romance. It was too full of people, too full of things to buy, too full of similarly coloured seats, too full of plastic, too full of human beings, too full of crying children.’
Of course, Christie never left her protagonists idle for long and Stafford Nye’s boredom soon ends as he is plunged into adventure and political intrigue.

Christopher St. John Sprigge was an airman and uses the setting of a small private aerodrome for his most famous novel, Death of an Airman (1934), in which the Bishop of Cootamunda witnesses the moment when the plane flown by a flying instructor crashes and the vehicle becomes not merely the scene of crime but the murder weapon.
‘The Bishop looked sharply at Furnace’s aeroplane again. It had lost a lot of height since they had first seen it. It was flickering down towards a bank of trees. It fell still lower.
The Bishop heard a gasp beside him. Sally jumped to her feet, her face contorted with sudden alarm. “Here George!” she said in a low, urgent voice. “Don’t leave it so late!” Then her face paled. She gave an agonised cry that lived forever in the Bishop’s memory. “For God’s sake use your rudder!”
Separated by thousands of yards of clear air, inhuman, remote, the flickering toy vanished behind the trees. There was no sound, no wisp of smoke, but only the empty air, and the silence.
Sally turned abruptly, without a particle of expression on her face. “Quick, the ambulance!”
Not content with trains and boats and planes, Christie also features coaches amongst her places to plot and commit murder. In Nemesis (1971) the luxury coach tour to explore stately homes and gardens is used as a device for gathering the interested parties into close proximity, so that Miss Marple may discover the truth about a crime that was thought to be resolved. Unfortunately, this plan misfires when the true killer panics and strikes again to silence a possible witness.
In the short story, The Gates of Baghdad, (Parker Pyne Investigates, 1934) murder is committed on the Pullman motor coach that is transporting visitors across the desert, but this crime is so cleverly planned that it would have passed as an accident if it had not been for Parker Pyne’s instinct for ill-doing and his persistence in seeking the truth.

For over a hundred years, trains, boats, planes and coaches have been used as scenes of crime with increasing inventiveness, but for the 21st century reader one of the most intriguing things about these novels is not only the innovative use of the space to commit and solve murder but also the insight it gives us into life and travel at this period. All of the books mentioned are available in Kindle and many are also available in paperback.

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below. 
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts click on the title.  

No comments:

Post a Comment