Five Favorite Books is a special feature at LA Books Examiner in which our favorite authors share their five favorite books within a category. In this edition, author and editor Nicholas Litchfield divulges his five favorite books themed around railroads.
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the acclaimed literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle and author of the espionage thriller Swampjack Virus. He has edited numerous anthologies, including Intrepid Travelers, Far-flung and Foreign, and Lowestoft Chronicle 2011 Anthology. The latest anthology, Somewhere Sometime, will be published on March 15th, 2014 and is available to buy from all major online booksellers. To learn more about Nicholas Litchfield and the popular literary magazine, visit lowestoftchronicle.com. Also, check out the LA Books Examiner’s review of Intrepid Travelers, published last year.
Five Favorite Railroad Books, by Nicholas Litchfield
Growing up in a small village in the English countryside, miles from any town, I relied on a series of trains, coaches, and buses to take me where I needed to go. A double-decker bus took me to school and the mall, and a train or a bus was required to visit friends. On weekends, I was a passenger on one of my father’s fleet of buses, taking daytrips to nearby towns and cities and to the seaside during the summers.
Later, when I began living in cities, I became dependent on the subway and commuter rail. The best part of my day was always the journey to work — the better the book, the more enjoyable the journey.
These days, I’m more accustomed to a car as a means of getting places and, while it’s great not to have to depend on public transport, I do miss the opportunity to read a book on the way to my destination. In the case of the five books I have chosen this time around, I’ve opted to focus exclusively on railroads. Each book involves significant incidences on the railroad, from ambush, robbery, and murder to something as delightfully simple as a conversation between strangers sharing a compartment.
1) Hell Train, by Christopher Fowler (2011)
The first Christopher Fowler book I read was Disturbia, a year or two after it came out (at the tail end of the 90s), and despite thinking what a wonderful writer Fowler was, for some reason I didn’t pick up another of his books for nearly fifteen years. I never forgot his name, though. So when I came across Hell Train last year, on a spinner in my local library, I couldn’t wait to get reacquainted with his writing. I wasn’t disappointed. This was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time. It is a supernatural chiller, set almost entirely on a train during the First World War, and it’s very gory, very exciting, and has a good deal of tongue-in-cheek humor. The plot concerns an American screenwriter who is commissioned to write a screenplay for Hammer Films in less than five days, and the rest of the book, for the most part, is his script for the studio — essentially, the terrifying experiences of four passengers aboard a demonic train called Arkangel, traveling through Eastern Europe during wartime. During their journey, these four characters must each face a number of challenges devised to play on their weaknesses. As you can imagine, Hell Train is chock-full of blood and gore, monsters and demons, and has a lot of twists and surprises. Certain moments and characters lingered in my mind long after I finished it — like the mysterious casket and the seductive, veiled Red Countess (which both prove to be overly great temptations for the vicar and his scheming wife), or the Professor’s creepy porcelain doll with the beautiful singing voice (which captivates the attractive peasant girl from Chelmsk), or the army brigadier with a taste for blood. Most intriguing of all is the mystery behind the conductor and the story of the train itself. I can’t say enough good things about Hell Train or recommend it enough. It’s the sort of book you read in one sitting and, when you have finished it, you look back over the first few chapters and marvel at the clever way Fowler brought all those seemingly disparate story elements together.
2) The Great Train Robbery, by Michael Crichton (1975)
This bestselling historical novel by Michael Crichton is a fictionalized account of the famous Great Gold Robbery of 1855, where thieves robbed a train that was carrying gold bullion for the British army in the Crimea. Crichton tells the story in a very methodical way, starting with an unrelated earlier botched attempt by a youth and, then, introducing the central characters, one by one, before focusing on the planning of the robbery, the execution of it, and the aftermath. The surprising thing about the novel is how much detail there is in it. Crichton obviously did a mammoth amount of research, and he goes into a lot of detail on everything from picking a pocket, to dog fighting, to burial customs. In fact, there’s a wonderful moment toward the end of the book when a coffin becomes the primary focus. Crichton first sets the scene by discussing the Victorian preoccupation with premature burial and, then, explains a popular invention by George Bateson called the “Bateson Life Revival Device,” an alarm system in the form of an iron bell fitted to the coffin lid, with a cord attached from the bell to the corpse’s hand, that is activated by movement within the coffin. During the robbery, at the moment when the conductors are about to search a coffin on board the train, the Bateson bell suddenly rings. It’s a brilliant shock moment, and the scene keeps getting better and better still, but I won’t spoil it by saying what occurs when the bell rings.
Despite all the facts and figures and digressions, Crichton maintains a fast pace throughout, and there isn’t a single dull moment in the entire book. In fact, I stupidly started reading the novel one evening and when I put it down to go to bed I couldn’t sleep for wanting to read what happened next. I haven’t yet read any of Crichton’s other books, so I don’t know if he ever bettered this novel, but I’m certainly interested in finding out.
3) The Railway Detective, by Edward Marston (2004)
This is the first book in the historical mystery series set in the 1850s featuring the tenacious Detective Inspector Robert Colbeck, nicknamed “The Railway Detective” by the press. Clever, charming, and exquisitely dressed (he is referred to as the “dandy of Scotland Yard”) Colbeck is a railway enthusiast and a rising star in the relatively new Detective Department of the Metropolitan Police Force. All the books in the series revolve around crimes committed on the railway, and this one involves a train robbery with murderous consequences that takes place in the little town where I went to school. The author, Edward Marston, is actually the pseudonym of Keith Miles, a very prolific writer of historical fiction and mystery novels, whose strengths as a writer are his convincing dialogue, straightforward prose, and careful attention to plot. The Railway Detective series, which is now up to book ten, can be read in any order without fear of plot spoilers in subsequent books, and many of the subsidiary characters, like Brendan Mulryne and Caleb Andrews, appear throughout.
4) Trains and Lovers, by Alexander McCall Smith (2013)
Years ago, I attended a lecture by Alexander McCall Smith, and the turnout was so great that barely half the crowd could fit inside the large auditorium. At the time, I hadn’t read anything by the author. Nevertheless, I arrived at the venue several hours in advance and felt privileged to have found a seat near the front. When McCall Smith started reading from one of his novels, I realized I’d been missing out by not picking up one of his many books. This one, Trains and Lovers, is a standalone novel about four strangers who, on a train journey between Edinburgh and London, share personal stories of love and life-altering moments that are connected in some way with trains. Each character has something fascinating to say, though by far the most affecting story is by Kay, an Australian woman, who tells the story of how her parents met and their life running a remote railway siding in the Outback. McCall Smith continually finds clever ways to hop between the various narratives, surprising and amusing the reader and imparting plenty of wisdom.
5) The Yard Dog, by Sheldon Russell (2009)
Set in the 1940s, towards the end of World War II, this is the first book in Sheldon Russell’s stylishly written historical mystery series. The title of the book refers to Walter “Hook” Runyon, a one-armed railroad security agent (or “yard dog”) living in a caboose in Waynoka, Oklahoma. Although Hook is a tough, cynical type who hits the moonshine hard and shoots elevator rats for sport, he’s also a big reader and rare book collector whose caboose is overrun with first editions he’s amassed from used bookstores and flea markets. His prosthesis doesn’t seem to hamper him much. If anything, it usually serves him rather well in fistfights or in prying open crates and jumping onto trains. In fact, there’s a particularly thrilling moment in The Yard Dog when Hook, unafraid as ever, has to leap off a moving train in order to pursue a German soldier who has escaped from Camp Alva, a German prisoner-of-war camp, and is attempting a getaway on a John Deere tractor. Russell is such a wonderful writer he pulls off exciting moments like this with particular elegance. In this first Hook Runyon mystery, Hook investigates the death of his friend, Spark Duggan, a mentally challenged railway yard scavenger who delivers coal for Hook’s stove. Spark is discovered crushed to death by a reefer car, and Hook is suspicious that his death wasn’t accidental. His investigation revolves around a black market smuggling operation at the nearby POW camp. Subsequent books take place in various other parts of America, with Hook’s caboose transported by Frenchy’s steamer to areas requiring his attention. The series is up to book four now, and I hope there are plenty more to come. In Hook Runyon, Russell has created a uniquely fascinating, memorable hero.
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Frank Mundo is the author of The Brubury Tales, Gary, the Four-Eyed Fairy and Other Stories and Different.