Travel Reads: Gripping Crime Novels Set Aboard Train Journeys

In crime fiction, train journeys offer settings with thrills and intrigue.  
A still from the film "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974). Photo: Ullstein Bild/Contributor/Getty Images
A still from the film "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974). Photo: Ullstein Bild/Contributor/Getty Images

Train journeys are not always about picturesque ruralscapes or getting from point A to B. They can also be the perfect backdrop for dastardly murders, high-octane chases, and an ingenious robbery or two. Crime fiction writers have often used the no man’s territory of a train compartment as a setting for edgy noir and nail-biting thrillers. Here are five classics that are great companions on a train journey:

Murder On The Orient Express (1934)

This sensational whodunit by Agatha Christie set aboard the luxurious Orient Express became such a worldwide bestseller that the train and the book are almost indelibly linked in the minds of readers. In this journey from Istanbul to London, murder, intrigue, and deception are the bill of fare. Featuring the indomitable Hercule Poirot at his best, this is a case with depth, complexity, and the standard red herrings to throw you off the trail. As always it takes one confounding murder, multiple suspects, and one man with a military moustache, a fondness for herb teas, and an incredible method to present all
the answers.

Incident On The KalkaMail: The Adventures of Feluda (2004)

This translation is a classic from the stables of Satyajit Ray’s ace detective Pradosh Chandra Mitter aka Feluda and his merry cohorts, including the spunky Topshe and inimitable Jatayu. It’s a short story that headlines a thrilling collection in which all sorts of crimes are solved by this genteel Bengali sleuth. This particular tale, set aboard the Kalka Mail, seems like a fairly innocuous case at first involving briefcases switched on the train. But like all Feluda adventures, it soon becomes a conundrum that will keep readers guessing till the very end.

Inspector Ghote Goes By Train (1971)

H.R.F. Keating’s hero is a detective in the Mumbai police force who has been given a fairly simple assignment—to bring back infamous criminal A.K. Bhattacharya from Kolkata to Mumbai via train. The only problem is that no one knows what he looks like. They’re to travel aboard the plush, air-conditioned Calcutta Mail, a treat the detective is looking forward to. However, Ghote underestimates the master impersonator and the motley crew of fellow travellers. The journey to Kolkata and back is set entirely on the train and is full of masterful suspense, drama, and a faceoff between two equally sharp minds.

4:50 From Paddington (1957)

Agatha Christie is the undisputed queen of train noir and this one is a thriller from the word go, when Mrs. McGillicuddy sees a man strangling a woman in a train running on a parallel track. She’s on her way to visit Miss Marple, one of Christie’s memorable detectives, who takes it upon herself to find the body and murderer in question. Her search takes her to Rutherford Hall and there unravels a dark web of deceit. As Miss Marple stacks together all the clues, the skeletons in the closet come tumbling out, along with the identity of the faceless man on the train.

Strangers On A Train (1950)

Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel propelled her into the big leagues of crime fiction, especially after Alfred Hitchcock adapted it for the screen soon after its release. The now iconic story has a tennis player and a playboy face-off in a strange twist of events involving love, infidelity, and of course murder. This is a thriller packed with all the right tropes—blackmail, secret letters, action, romance, and high drama. After reading it, be rest assured that saying hello to a stranger on a train will never be the same again.

Appeared in the October 2016 issue as “Mystery Express”.

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    Diya Kohli is Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.

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