Railways pervade the classic whodunnit. They bring detectives to the crime scene take criminals away from it, provide alibis and throw together unlikely groups of people. No-one can read many of the classic detective stories from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries without becoming familiar with “Bradshaw”, the railway timetable and tutelary spirit of the genre. Sherlock Homes, Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and their colleagues are all accustomed to consult Bradshaw for guidance in their quests.
Some of the most famous whodunnits involve trains – Miss Marple’s investigation of the 4.50 From Paddington springs to mind, along with Poirot’s case of Murder On The Orient Express and The Mystery of the Blue Train. Though hansom cabs feature in the popular image of Sherlock Holmes’ London, trains and railway stations appear continually in his adventures – for example, in nine out of the fourteen stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. They can also be functional elements of the plot: in The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, the body of a young man is found beside a railway track without any ticket in his pocket to show where his journey started. Holmes deduces that his body must have been put on top of a train carriage after he was dead, and his knowledge of the railway system allows him to calculate where the man was killed.
Likewise in The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, the passages of messy writing in a draft of a will suggest to the great detective that the document was written in a train passing through stations and over sets of points: “A scientific expert would pronounce at once that this was drawn up on a suburban line, since nowhere save in the vicinity of a great city could there be so quick a succession of points…the train was an express, only stopping once between Norwood and London Bridge.”
It’s hardly surprising that trains feature largely in detective fiction from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After all, they played a large part in contemporary life, and were relatively new – extensive railway construction occurred in Britain during the 1830s and 40s, and it wasn’t until 1863 that the Metropolitan Railway allowed Londoners to traverse their city by train. The effect on commercial and passenger travel was revolutionary, and a “railway mania” took off in the 1840s as companies scrambled to build new lines. Cities which had always been days’ journey away suddenly became much closer.
The railways’ impact wasn’t limited to their effect on travel. The ability to move rapidly across the country led to the development of a standard time to govern the arrivals and departures, something we tend to take for granted. Britain had previously been a patchwork of “local times”, and it wasn’t until the late 1840s that the railway companies adopted Greenwich Mean Time as a standard, with the whole country eventually following in 1880. It doesn’t seem an exaggeration to suggest that the railways led to a different concept of time in Britain, and the detective story made full use of it. Trains even became elided with their times, as characters began to refer to “the 9.13” or “the 4.50”, as if they were dealing with moments rather than locomotives.
The new technology had a social aspect as well. Travelling by train, in semi-public spaces such as stations and first-class carriages, placed the traveller in proximity (horror of horrors) with people to whom they had not been formally introduced. The diary of Isobel Jane Crewe, a gentlewoman of the mid nineteenth century, records her “longing to speak” to Lady Burleigh in a train carriage. Though the two women were aware of each other’s identity, and apparently both wished to converse, they felt unable to do so. We might laugh at such over-nice scruples, but we instinctively understand the opening of Poirot’s Christmas, in which the half-Spanish Pilar Estravados and the South African Harry Lee are the only characters in the train carriage who strike up a conversation, and we draw instant conclusions about their characters. The half-enclosed, socially ambiguous space of the train carriage, which threw people together in a temporary intimacy within a fast-moving vehicle, was a rich source of dramatic tension. (Other genres found the railways interesting, of course – the classics Brief Encounter and Strangers On A Train both exploited the ambiguous status of rail travel for their different purposes. Likewise, W. H. Auden’s menacing poem Gare du Midi imagines “A nondescript express in from the South” and an anonymous man who “Walks out briskly to infect a city/ Whose terrible future may have just arrived”.)
Detective fiction revels in the possibilities offered by railway travel, but it also expresses some anxiety about them. The ability to travel across Britain at such speeds was exciting, but also potentially unsettling for a social system which still, in many ways, preferred that people remained “in their place”. When Sir Henry Baskerville is being followed by an unknown bearded man in London, he suspects it may be the butler from Baskerville Hall, and sends a telegram to check whether or not “Barrymore is at his post in Devonshire.” In fact they discover by the end of the novel that the bearded man must have been the clean-shaven country doctor Stapleton in a disguise, but the episode seems a telling moment of social anxiety, as the master of the estate seeks reassurance that his dependents have not availed themselves of the same freedom he enjoys. Rapid rail travel blurred the lines between previously stable distinctions like town and country, and there is a hint in these stories that social distinctions were being similarly threatened. When Hercule Poirot is faced with a group of people from all classes and nationalities in Murder On The Orient Express, he points out that there is no way to verify that any of them are whom they claim to be. There’s an interesting parallel to this social uncertainty in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of being Earnest as both Jack and Algy use the railways to flit between town and country, giving false impressions as to their intentions, morals, and even identities. In the play’s famous “handbag?” scene, Lady Bracknell reveals that Jack Worthing’s greatest social crime consists of having been found in a left luggage office and named after a railway ticket – a compelling image of disruptive anonymity.
Faced with this combination of anxiety and exhilaration, the detective’s job is to master the new technology and force it to serve order rather than chaos. 4.50 From Paddington presents Miss Marple with an apparently impossible case. One of her friends claims to have seen a murder on a train travelling parallel to her own for a brief space of time – no-one believes what she thought she saw really happened, and even if it did, how could one even begin to look for the body, let alone the murderer? Murder On The Orient Express requires Hercule Poirot to analyse a carriage full of disparate people, any or all of whom could be lying to him. The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans offers Sherlock Holmes a problem which at first glance seems insoluble, given the complexity and ramifications of the Metropolitan Railway. Yet in each case, the detective triumphs over the dangerous and disrupting effect of the railway, assuring the audience that this powerful and Byzantine system can be held to account, and forced to give up its secrets.
Thanks are due to Kirsten Sample for sharing her research on gentlewomen’s diaries, and for her permission to use it. This article first appeared in California Literary Review, May 2008.