Saturday, 25 April 2015

Guardian books: What You See from a Train




train 1


Today’s entry appeared on the Guardian’s book pages – after reading the new Paula Hawkins thriller The Girl on a Train (blogpost to follow soon) I got to thinking about why the setup is so intriguing. The starting point is that a young woman gets the same train every day, and watches out for a house that backs on to the line. She imagines a life for the happy, good-looking couple in their garden, and looks for them obsessively twice a day, there and back. But what she sees begins to make her fear that something is going wrong.


Girl on the Train backgarden 1 

look out the train window and what do you see….?

That idea of glimpsing something through the train window is a complete winner - aren’t we all caught by that idea? And so I looked for other literary examples of what you see though a train window. This is from the Guardian piece:
 
The most famous example is perhaps Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington – actually a double-train moment. Two trains moving in the same direction briefly overlap – and Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder on the parallel train. No one believes her, no body turns up, so her friend Miss Marple has to investigate for her. The murder is a deeply memorable moment, and once you’ve read the book, you’re always a bit nervous looking across in those seconds when two trains move together. 

An earlier Christie novel, The Man in a Brown Suit, from 1924, contains a hilarious discussion of taking photos out of a train window:
“It must be some curve if you can photograph the front part of the train from the back, it will look awfully dangerous.”

I pointed out to her that no one could possibly tell it had been taken from the back of the train. She looked at me pityingly. “I shall write underneath it. ‘Taken from the train. Engine going round a curve.’”

“You could write that under any snapshot of a train.”
I think of this every time I see one of those curved-train photos, while still thrilling to the view.





train 3

The Travelling Companions by Augustus Egg
 
Other blog favourites mentioned include the Christmas bestseller Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon – a 1937 classic book championed by my good blogfriends Martin Edwards and Curtis EvansThe Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes.
And Lissa Evans has already mentioned to me the marvellous Saki short story, The Storyteller, and I’m sure readers will have plenty more train stories that I should have put in the piece…






20 comments:

  1. Well done! Terrific article, which makes me want to read the new book and re-read the others (and pick up the Farjeon too) - I think you ticked all the boxes! And not even one mention of the too familiar THE WHEEL SPINS (which became Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES) - yay!

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    1. Thanks Sergio - it's always a challenge to get the balance between the obvious choices (they're famous for a reason...) and trying to get some different ones in, so it's nice that you appreciate the effort. Wasn't going to do Strangers of a Train either, much as I like that one too.

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  2. This is a great article, Moira! And trains (and looking out them) are such great contexts for stories. I'm so glad you mentioned 4:50 From Paddington, too - a classic example. Hmmm...now you have me thinking about other train scenes in crime fiction. There are quite a lot of them and they can really add to a story.

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    1. Now I'm hoping you will come up with a great blogpost on this topic Margot - I'll be looking out for it...

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  3. I think you're right about the 'hypnotic power of those transitory scenes we see out of a train window'. It's terribly alluring, because you catch glimpses of lives that you have no part in - life is going on, but somehow when I'm on a train I always feel as if I'm just an observer, outside life.

    By the way, did you know that John Betjeman, who was a tremendous railway enthusiast, also recognised the attraction of gazing out of train windows. He said 'railways were built 'to look from, and to look at', which I think is rather nice.

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    1. Yes Christine, that's exactly right, I think, about feeling more of an observer on a train than anywhere else. It's a pause in life isn't it? And that's a great snipped about John Betjeman, thank you, I hadn't heard that before.

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    2. It's one of those quotes which sticks in my mind, but I did check it to make sure I remembered it correctly! It's from 'Back to the Railway Carriage', one of his wartime radio broadcasts, some of which are gathered together in 'Trains and Buttered Toast'.

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    3. Thanks Christine, I'll remember that.

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  4. Moira: I enjoyed the post. It is far from life in Saskatchewan. There is not a single commuter train in the province. There are no city to city trains. The only passenger train is the Trans-Canada which makes 1 or 2 stops in the hundreds of kilometers across Saskatchewan. When I was growing up there were daily trains carrying people around the province but they all faded away in the 1970's.

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    1. I can't imagine an area without trains, they are so much a part of Brit life, what a shame you lost them! I have a railway line literally at the end of my garden, the main London line. I do remember looking at those trains going right across Canada and thinking I should like to do that one day.

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  5. Moira, I have yet to read 4.50 FROM PADDINGTON but I know the story and I think it's one of the most clever plotlines in crime-mystery fiction. I'd love to know how Christie thought of it.

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    1. One of the reasons I like her so much is that she thinks up great setups like this one. My guess is that she was just on a train one day, and another train came alongside, and she thought 'what if...' and off she went...

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  6. John Godey's Taking of Pelham 123 is somewhere in the tubs. it has been filmed a couple of times - Walter Matthau in the 70's, more recently with Denzil and Travolta.

    Runaway Train was a superb film - John Voight and Eric Roberts, I can't see that it was derived from a book though. Screenplay by Eddie Bunker, who is a tub favourite!

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    1. I didn't know Pelham 123, which I do remember as a book, was ever a film. And I haven't seen Runaway Train but will look it up. Thanks for the additions....

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  7. Agreeing with a commenter above, my all-time favorite movie involving trains is Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. A kidnapping, Nazis, a shoot-out, wonderful characters, including two British heroes, what could be better?

    I have seen that movie many times and will undoubtedly see it again.

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    1. Yes it's a goody, isn't it? There was a remake recently which I didn't watch - did you see it? I think it might have been a BBC TV film.

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  8. Great post and article at the Guardian. One of my favorite topics. Glen and I both love trains, although vicariously. Haven't traveled on them much. We were just at the train station yesterday enjoying the beautiful Santa Barbara train station.

    With my new interest in short stories, I recently discovered (and purchased) a book of short stories featuring trains edited by Bill Pronzini, titled Midnight Specials. As an added bonus, it has a wonderful bibliography of suspense stories, novels, nonfiction, and films featuring trains. Since it was published in 1977 it only includes stories written before that.

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    1. Oh what a great idea for a short story anthology, lucky you to have that. I love trains in real life, and I love them in fiction, there is something magical about them. Looking forward to reading about some train items on your blog.

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  9. No. I did not see the remake of The Lady Vanishes. I feel like that would be sacrilege. Hitchcock made a winner, a classic. I don't think I could see a remake.
    It would be like seeing the Thin Man movies without William Powell and Myrna Loy or The Maltese Falcon without Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet.

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    1. I can see you are a purist! I take some convincing about re-makes, but sometimes they can be good. When I was a lot younger, there was a much-loved series on the BBC called Poldark, a drama set in Cornwall in the 18th century. We all loved it, it was romantic and exciting and adventurous with lots of sweeping scenery and good-looking actors. Now it has just been remade, and it is just as good the second time around....

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