I’ve always wanted to put a railway in one of my crime novels. My grandfather was a train driver, working on the famous Great Western Railway, and the Peak District where I live is full of relics from the age of steam. From decaying signal boxes to the impressive Headstone viaduct, these landmarks are a reminder of how ubiquitous train travel once was. I utilised one Victorian tunnel as the location of the crime in my latest novel, The Shrouded Path.
Rail journeys have an enduring appeal in fiction. Children’s classics may romanticise the practicalities of train travel, but have nurtured a love of railways in generations of readers. Distance or comfort isn’t necessarily important: you can get as much enjoyment from reading of a short trip through the English suburbs as a journey across Europe on the Orient Express. And rail journeys can also shape a narrative, with the compartmentalised world of a train carriage providing the perfect opportunity for a locked-room style mystery.
How to narrow a list down to10 fictional rail journeys? My choices below reflect the novels where I’d not only immersed myself in the story but also travelled in my mind alongside the characters.
1. The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By by George Simenon, translated by Sian Reynolds
Many of us have watched a train pass and felt the urge to join its passengers on a trip into the unknown. Alongside his Maigret crime novels, Simenon wrote a number of psychological studies, his romans durs. In this dark and disturbing book, Dutch office worker Kees Popinga steps on to a Paris-bound train having committed one murder, ready to embark on a spree of violence.
2. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
Dickens largely ignores the railways in his books until Dombey and Son, a strange omission given that the author himself was a victim of the Staplehurst train accident of 1865. Dickens is clearly appalled by the destruction caused by the advent of rail travel. A bereaved Dombey, mourning the loss of his son, draws parallels between swiftness of Paul’s death and the speed of the train hurtling through the countryside, monstrously sweeping away everything in its path.
3. 4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie
Christie nurtured my love of crime fiction, and the books featuring Miss Marple are still my favourites. Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses the murder of a woman in a train carriage that draws alongside her own. No one believes her story, except her friend Jane Marple, who uses her network of friends to discover the location of the body and the secrets of the dysfunctional family occupying Rutherford Hall. As usual, Christie provides plenty of red herrings.
4. The Railway Children by E Nesbit
Most of the journeys in this Edwardian classic are seen through the eyes of the three children uprooted from the London suburbs to Yorkshire, who wave at passing trains from a cutting near their home. The railway deposits them in the country darkness and provides their benefactor: the Old Gentleman, a daily passenger on the 9.15 train. Rarely has a railway line been so idealised; the romance of steam trains are shown through names such as Worm of Wantley and Fearsome Fly-by-Night, assigned to the engines by the children.
5. The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White
Made by Alfred Hitchcock into the film The Lady Vanishes, an English tourist on holiday in eastern Europe befriends an elderly governess who disappears from her carriage, while her fellow passengers deny that the woman ever existed. A much-copied plot device but wonderfully executed here. White is an underrated writer and her books have a creepy brilliance to them.
6. Dracula by Bram Stoker
Jonathan Harker travels across Europe by train to Count Dracula’s estate, noting in his diary the castles perched high on the hills and the curiosity of the locals he meets. However, he laments the fact that the further east he travels, the less punctual the trains become. There’s something reassuring about the solidity of train travel, compared to the ominous carriage ride to Dracula’s estate on the final leg of the journey.
7. 1222 by Anne Holt, translated by Marlaine Delargey
In this Norwegian take on Murder on the Orient Express, a northbound train from Oslo gets stranded during one of the worst snow storms in the country’s history. Passengers move to a nearby hotel where a body is discovered, leaving ex-cop Hanne Williamsen to uncover the murderer. One of the best Nordic noir books, it perfectly conveys the isolation of snowy landscapes; I remember reading it during one windy, wintry night in the Peaks.
8. From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming
Moving trains are perfect settings for murder plots, and no one does it better than Fleming. I could have chosen a few of his books but I love this one for its thrilling conclusion on the Orient Express. James Bond outwits an assassin by placing his metal cigarette case between the pages of a book, which deflects a bullet aimed at his heart – pure 007.
9. Stamboul Train by Graham Greene
Another espionage novel taking place on the Orient Express, but the tone couldn’t be more different. Although subtitled “An Entertainment” by Greene to distinguish it from his serious fiction, the huge cast of characters touch on the author’s preoccupations of lost Catholic faith, grim humour and strained relationships. When the train arrives in Istanbul, there’s a sense that the journey has ended, but their lives remain incomplete.
10. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling
I’m sure a generation of children, judging by the queues outside Platform 9¾ at Kings Cross in London, have discovered the joy of train travel from the Harry Potter books. Who can resist the Hogwarts Express carrying students from Kings Cross to Hogsmeade Station at the beginning of each school term? Personally, I’d rather eat Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans or a Cauldron Cake from the witchy food trolley than anything an ordinary buffet car has to offer.
• The Shrouded Path by Sarah Ward is out now (Faber & Faber, £12.99)