Haven’t we all felt a little murderous when we’ve missed our train? Crime novelists certainly do. There’s a legacy of murder mysteries taking place on various forms of transport – from classics such as Agatha Christie’s train-set Murder on the Orient Express to new blockbusters like Falling by TJ Newman. I’m stamping my ticket to board this club of writers with my new novel, Everyone on this Train is a Suspect, which got me thinking. Why is transportation so perfect for a murder mystery? The answer: Proximity, Pressure, Punctuality, and Peril.
Enclosed spaces. Trapped suspects. Doomed victims. These are all essential for any good murder mystery but they are especially so when set on something in movement. A plane, train, or bus are (to various degrees) very cramped environments, and they force your characters together. A murderer can’t run away at 30,000 feet in the air, for example. This leaves the detective with no choice but to solve the crime if they want to survive the journey. Limiting your suspects to a confined space also offers tantalizing excitements of the ‘locked room’ mystery. It’s fun license for an author to get inventive: how do you kill someone and get away with it on a bus full of people?
Tight spaces brings a pressure cooker to the cast as well, which is important to any murder mystery. A journey allows you take a group of characters, with all their backstories, simmering resentments, and hatreds, and lock them together. Add the pressure of travel (which we’ve all surely felt) and the cocktail of tension is inescapable. Sometimes I just sit back and let my characters tell me who’s going to kill who! But on the other hand, a travel journey doesn’t necessarily have to be with people who know each other. Your characters can also be groups of people who don’t know each other. And that might be even scarier: think about your seat mate on your next plane. What do you know about them? Really? Nothing. It’s a narrative goldmine for fear and mystery on the one hand, and on the other it can be extremely satisfying as a band of strangers come together to conquer the baddie. But the key to it all is pressure. Locking the characters in and letting them cook is a surefire way to have an exciting plot.
No, this point isn’t about whether the trains run on time. One of the best things about transport in a murder mystery is that there is an automatic ticking clock. The ‘end of the line’ so to speak. The journey, by definition, has a destination. The time limit for a detective to solve the murders (or to merely survive) is dictated by the final stop. Races against time are always gripping in fiction, and it is inherent in a 14-hour flight from Sydney to LA, for example, that time is ticking. Transport is also about movement too, so the clock can be counting down something completely different, but just as suspenseful. The bus in Speed running out of fuel (yes, Speed is a murder-mystery…), for example.
Danger doesn’t have to come from inside the location! Mysteries set in transport have their own built suspense and danger form a sense of danger and speed: a bullet train ripping through Japan (Bullet Train) or a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean (The Woman in Cabin 10), or even the broken ski-lift (The Drift). These are perilous scenarios before you even introduce a killer. And they might just be as dangerous to get off as they are to be on…
Personally, I’ve decided to tackle a train in my latest novel, specifically The Ghan, a famous Australian luxury hotel-train barreling through the red desert. I throw six crime writers into close proximity, stew in the pressure of ego and revenge, blend with the peril of the treacherous Aussie landscape, and give them a time limit: solve the murder of one of their own by the time the train crosses Australia, or the killer escapes unpunished.
I hope I’ve done a little bit of justice to the great legacy of ‘moving mysteries’. The only question left is: with so many locations – trains, buses, planes, ski-lifts, gondolas, white-water rafts, space-ships, cruise liners, elevators, yachts and campervans – where does the genre go to next?
What about a Thailand set murder mystery on a Tuk-tuk? Count me in.