You think of crime novels, you think of trains.
Well, maybe not you. but many people.
Murder on the Orient Express leaps to mind, of course, but there are a lot of other examples, as you can read about in this anonymous article from Penguin. Perhaps the forthcoming movie starring Brad Pitt and Lady Gaga will pique your interest, or perhaps you’ll want to read one of the novels discussed in that article.
So what is it about trains that fascinates crime novelists?
The answer is…
I have no idea. But there’s clearly something there. Actually, I do have a small idea—a hypothesis, shall we say. It relates to a much grander hypothesis that I have held for decades, relating to the tension between structure and freedom in one’s appreciation of various art forms. (This isn’t original with me, but I don’t know where else I’ve read it.) Basically, it’s hard to appreciate something if you can’t perceive any structure at all, if all is freedom, and it’s also hard to appreciate it if all you have is structure, with no freedom. Consider chess, for example. If you don’t have any idea what the next move could be, there’s no structure, and that’s not interesting, but if you’re absolutely certain what the next move will be then that’s not interesting either as there’s nothing but structure. Similarly with certain forms of modern dance and jazz, where I don’t see the structure at all and therefore don’t appreciate them, in contrast to listening to someone practice major scales for hours, which is hard to appreciate since it’s another case of nothing but structure.
So what does all that have to do with crime novels and trains? Well, both of them give you a highly structured context within which there’s a lot of freedom—constrained freedom, yes, but freedom nonetheless. The enclosed environment of a train, and the constrained path of the tracks, can provide the ideal middle ground between two extremes.
This are my two cents, anyway. Now it’s time to read some more train mysteries.