I have spent the last two weekends in Manhattan and Toronto; each time, leaving on Friday morning and returning on Sunday evening. My youngest son was there to audition for fine arts graduate programs that could take him far from home next year. The stakes are high and these trips felt like the first step toward a grand adventure for him.
It took us just minutes to decide that we would travel by train. The spell that train travel casts over me and my son has its roots in literature and in the movie adaptations of some great stories.
I’m pretty sure that the romance of trains still fires the imaginations of many.
What is the first novel or story about trains or train travel that you would recommend? Is it Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express? Is it The Mystery of the Blue Train? Or perhaps 4-50 from Paddington?
Certainly, Christie has written some of the most compelling and atmospheric train mysteries of all time, and it was a little because of these that as we set off from Central Station, my expectation was that there would be more space in the train. In fiction and in the movies of my memory, people move about endlessly in trains—they strike up conversations in dining cars, in their “compartments”, and while standing in aisles. They are active and they mingle, milling about with cigarettes dangling between glove-covered fingers, in the spaces built by cabinet makers and other craftsmen.
Modern reality, of course, is quite different. The train’s interior is mostly functional and minimalist, and few wander far. Instead, the train lulls you into a passive yet anticipatory state of civility.
In fiction, trains have provided the perfect environment for murder and intrigue, for accidental meetings and forbidden or tragic love affairs, for espionage and for terror. While Murder on the Orient Express is a brilliant example of the locked door mystery, Graham Greene actually got to the Orient Express first, with his novel Stamboul Train, published a year before Christie’s masterpiece.
Many other writers of stature have created equally marvelous reads. In 1936, Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins was published, and this thriller about meeting a stranger on a train was eventually adapted to the big screen by Alfred Hitchcock as “The Lady Vanishes”. Another train novel that it would be great fun to dig out is Christopher Isherwood’s book, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), which is set in pre-War Europe. And when it comes to creepy, there is also Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 thriller, Strangers on a Train.
In more recent times, imagined train adventures have unfolded on the tracks of North American railroads in such novels as Dick Frances’ The Edge, in which the Jockey Club’s Tor Kelsey takes a transcontinental train journey across Canada, while readers—and the story’s characters—are put through a harrowing, claustrophobic nightmare in John Godey’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, published in 1973 and set in the New York subway.
Trains can be characters in stories, like the Hogwart’s Express in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which draws and holds all the young magicians together as they head to their new lives at wizard school.
For Martin Amis, author of Night Train, a beautiful noir thriller, the train is death itself: “Suicide is the night train, speeding your way to darkness.”
There are many, many more wonderful stories that are inextricably linked with the marvel of train travel: Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon, recommended by one of our Book Club readers; David Baldacci’s The Christmas Train; Alexander Mc Call Smith’s short story collection Trains and Lovers.
And trains have inspired poets as well (see John Mullan’s piece in The Guardian, “Ten of the best railway journeys”).
In the end, the prevalence of trains in literature should come as no surprise, for in both, life and imagination converge and the result is…timeless.
“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” Anna Quindlen