Strangers on a Train

This is a post about murder and trains. It’s also a post about Hitchcock, and the design of railway carriages.

Strangers on a Train is a Patricia Highsmith literary thriller that Alfred Hitchcock turned into a  film in 1951. The story is about two strangers who meet on a train. A plan is hatched whereby they will each commit a murder on behalf of the other. The fact that they have met, arbitrarily, on the train will cover their tracks and allow them to pull off the perfect crime!

Needless to say, things don’t pan out quite a tidily as planned…

It’s intriguing that writers and film makers have so often chosen the train as a crime scene. In some ways, this just reflects reality. The first railway murder was recorded in 1864 when Franz Muller murdered Thomas Briggs. A train driver spotted the body by the side of the tracks.

The case was notorious as it reflected a wide-spread anxiety about the risks of travelling on trains. The development of the railway allowed people, more or less for the first time, to travel about in large numbers. This mobility began to unpick the social segregations afforded by wealth, class and taste. For the first time, it was possible for the magistrate to sit next to the murder and be none the wiser.

The design of the first railway carriages exacerbated these anxieties. The early carriages were designed as slam-door compartments with no through-corridor. This meant that passengers could be stuck with each other for long periods of time. Also, there was no way that other passengers or the guards would be any the wiser…

It was obviously an improvement for passengers to sit in open cars saloon style cars. Nowadays, passengers sit in an arrangement of seats like that found on an plane and watched over by train managers and CCTV.

My favourite type of railway carriage is the corridor-express type. This is a lovely combination of compartments with six or eight seats, depending on class of ticket, and with sliding doors. The compartments mean that passengers can sit in comfort, facing each other and in relative privacy; whilst the corridor means that they can explore the train! Perfect.

Of course feelings of anxiety are always associated with adventure, excitement and pleasure (Freud). In these circumstances, it’s hard to get people to stay at home. Luckily, bad things don’t happen very often. Indeed, bad things mostly happen at home. My advice is to get out more.

All these themes combine, with the obvious adventure of travel, to distinguish the train as a perfect setting for romance, intrigue and murder.

Nowadays, the railway murder even provides the basis for re-enactment games on heritage steam trains.

I’ll return to these themes at regular intervals…

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