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The railway has long been a staple of golden age – and even some modern era – crime fiction. Though it's easy to forget it today, the rail has long been associated with glamour and possibility. Before planes, they allowed for freedom of movement like never before.
Perhaps even more importantly, at least as far as crime fiction is concerned, the railway offers a unique set of circumstances. It brings strangers together, but it also creates conditions similar to an isolated estate or locked room. Once the train is in motion, there are few ways off – and the array of sounds, locked compartments, and schedules can further add to the conditions of the murder and investigation.
Below, we take a look at some of the best and most interesting British mysteries set in and around the railway.
16 of the Best British Railway Mystery Novels
Aside from giving Dame Agatha Christie the top spot, the list below is in no particular order.
Murder on the Orient Express
Author: Agatha Christie
Believed to be the most widely-read mystery of all time, it would be wrong to create a list like this and overlook Dame Agatha's classic train adventure. The mystery begins when, just after midnight, a snowdrift stops the Orient Express on the tracks.
Nobody is too worried, but by morning, everything has changed. While they slept soundly in their beds, millionaire Samula Edward Ratchett was stabbed to death in his compartment…locked from the inside.
Trapped by the snowstorm, it's up to detective Hercule Poirot to find the killer before he or she strikes again.
4:50 From Paddington
Author: Agatha Christie
This murder mystery classic follows Elspeth McGillicuddy, a woman who has the unfortunate experience of witnessing a murder while looking out the window of her train into another. Helpless, she can do nothing but stare as a man tightens his grip around the dying woman's neck.
There are no witnesses, no suspects, and no case. Who would ever believe what she saw – aside from her dear friend Jane Marple, of course.
Taking her friend seriously, Miss Marple enlists the aid of her young friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow to go “undercover” within the Crackenthorpe family in hopes of unmasking the killer.
The Railway Detective
Author: Edward Marston
In 1851, London's Great Exhibition (organised by Henry Cole and Prince Albert) was big news. Famous people like Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson, and Charlotte Brontë were in attendance. The world's first soft drink, Schweppes, was the official sponsor – and Queen Victoria opened events from The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.
At the same time, interest in the railways was growing. The newly expanding lines offered discounted tickets to help bring people in from distant parts of the country…but not everyone was celebrating. A London to Birmingham train was robbed and derailed, killing many.
DI Robert Colbeck will have to untangle a web of murder and blackmail to get to the heart of who's responsible for the attack, which was carried out with military precision. As he closes in on the culprits, the injured train conductor's daughter finds herself a pawn in the criminals' game. Will he be able to catch the guilty parties before time runs out – and before an innocent young woman is hurt?
This book is the first in a series of 20 (so far) – all of which are railway-themed.
The Wheel Spins (Aka, The Lady Vanishes)
Author: Ethel Lina White
Before we had modern thrillers like The Girl on the Train and The Death of Mrs. Westaway, we had The Wheel Spins (aka The Lady Vanishes). This 1936 mystery classic follows Iris Carr, a young society woman who's staying at a hotel in Europe when her friends leave for Trieste.
Though Iris enjoys the sudden solitude, she starts to miss them after a while and decides to re-join them. She's hit on the head while waiting at the station, only to wake up in an unfamiliar room where no one speaks her language. She decides it was a bout of sunstroke and gets on the train.
On the train, she befriends the only other English speaker – an elderly woman named Miss Froy. Unfortunately, she takes a brief nap and finds Miss Froy gone when she wakes up. Even worse, everyone else claims Miss Froy never existed.
Death of a Stranger (William Monk Book #13)
Author: Anne Perry
When railway magnate Nolan Baltimore is found dead in a seedy brothel, everyone wonders what a man like him was doing in a place like that. At the same time, detective William Monk has been hired by a mysterious beauty who wants to know whether her fiance, an executive in Baltimore's company, is involved in something shady that could ruin him – and her, by association, should she marry him.
The case will take Monk on a trip into the English countryside, where rails are being laid for a new line. The sight of the tracks will revive some of his lost memories (due to an earlier case of amnesia), and what comes back is almost impossible to bear.
This book is #13 in the William Monk series, so you may find it more enjoyable if you've read the books that come before it.
The Girl on the Train
Author: Paula Hawkins
Every day, Rachel takes the same train past the same stretch of suburban houses. Every day, that train stops at the same signal and she watches the same couple enjoying breakfast on their deck.
Over time, she's invented a story – and entire life – for this couple she refers to as Jess and Jason. It's all just a fun, harmless exercise until the day she sees something truly shocking.
Death in the Tunnel
Author: Miles Burton
One dark November evening, Sir Wilfred Saxonby is travelling alone in a locked compartment. The train stops in a tunnel, and when it emerges soon after, Sir Wilfred is dead – shot through the heart with a single bullet.
Scotland Yard's Inspector Arnold suspects suicide as the obvious answer, but he can't come up with a good reason or explanation. Saxonby seems, by all accounts, to be a happy, untroubled family man and successful business person. Why would he take his own life?
When Inspector Arnold learns the tunnel stop was prompted by a mysterious red light, his hunch it could be more than suicide seems justified. To get to the bottom of the case, he'll team up with his friend Desmond Merrion, a wealthy amateur expert in criminology.
The Necropolis Railway (Jim Stringer, Book 1)
Author: Andrew Martin
Set in Edwardian London, this series follows railwayman Jim Stringer. In the first novel, he's newly moved to London and he finds himself assigned to a mysterious graveyard line where all his co-workers seem to hate him. What's more, his predecessor seems to have disappeared in unknown circumstances.
Is Jim himself in danger? Can he piece together what happened to the man who came before him?
The Mislaid Magician: Or, Ten Years After
Author: Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
This series follows a couple young ladies as they attend a wizarding college in Regency era London. By the third novel, it's 1828 and a new power has emerged in England – the steam engine. As tracks are laid down across the country, the shaking of the locomotives disrupts the workings of English magic.
When a foreign wizard disappears during a diplomatic trip to England, Cecilia finds herself travelling to the north of England to help with the investigation. Though not a traditional mystery, it's a fun departure for anyone who occasionally enjoys a dash of magic in their reading.
Stamboul Train (aka Orient Express)
Author: Graham Greene
As the Orient Express travels between Ostend and Constantinople (this book was originally published in 1933, back when it had only been Istanbul for 3 years), a number of passengers see their lives fatefully linked. As they get to know one another, it sets off a series of events that make for a suspenseful and occasionally very exciting journey.
A Rare Interest in Corpses (Inspector Ben Ross, Book 1)
Author: Ann Granger
In 1864 England, Lizzie Martin becomes a companion to a wealthy widow…only to learn her predecessor disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Soon after, the lost young girl's body is found in the rubble near the newly-constructed St. Pancras Railway Station, leading Lizzie to wonder what's going on. Signs point to a possible connection between her new employer and the place the body was found.
Lizzie looks up her childhood friend, now Inspector Benjamin Ross, and together they piece together the fate of the dead young girl.
The Furthest Station (Rivers of London, Book 5.5)
Author: Ben Aaronovitch
Part of the Rivers of London supernatural mystery series, this novella deals with ghosts on the London Underground. While sad, harmless spectres have always been a regular occurrence on the Underground, there's recently been a number of more frightening sightings on the Metropolitan Line. These new ghosts are scary and aggressive and causing all sorts of problems.
That's where PC Peter Grant comes in. He's a member of the Met's Special Assessment unit – the only officers who handle ghost hunting. Along with Jaget Kumar of the transport police, he'll have to figure out what's going on before someone gets hurt.
The Secret Tunnel
Author: James Lear
Fair warning: This one is not for those inclined to clutching pearls. Consider this line from the publisher's description:
Mitch Mitchell is back! All aboard the Flying Scotsman as our horny hero tackles a new case that mixes murder, mystery, and mansex.
On the other hand, if a playful gay parody of Agatha Christie's classic, Murder on the Orient Express, sounds like your kind of fun – head on over to Amazon to read the full description.
Mystery in White
Author: J. Jefferson Farjeon
On Christmas Eve, snow leaves a train full of passengers stranded outside the village of Hemmersby. Not far from the tracks, some of the passengers find a deserted country house and decide to take shelter.
Trapped for Christmas, the passengers keep themselves busy by getting to know one another and trying to unravel the mysteries of the abandoned house. Unfortunately, that's when the murderer strikes.
Bryant & May Off the Rails (Peculiar Crimes Unit, Book 8)
Author: Christopher Fowler
In book 8 of the Peculiar Crimes Unit series, we see Arthur Bryant and John May dealing with an escaped murderer. He escaped from a locked room and killed one of their own, and now he's luring them down into the tunnels of the London Underground.
While pursuing a man of disguises and few ties to society, they'll come up against another fresh mystery – one stranger than anything they've seen to date.
Blood on the Tracks
Author: Martin Edwards (editor)
Rather than a single full-length novel, this one is a collection of short railway-themed mysteries by authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ronald Knox. Much like the classic locked room or secluded country estate, the railway offers a setting with an element of romance – but also a handful of constraints that lend themselves to challenging or interesting mysteries.
If you don't always have time to get stuck into a full novel, this collection of 15 stories should prove satisfying.
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