Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Mystery of The Sleeping-Car Express - Freeman Wills Crofts

Story: The Mystery of The Sleeping-Car Express

Author: Freeman Wills Crofts
Source: The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, The Mystery of The Sleeping-Car Express & Other Stories. It can be read online here.
Story Number: 18
The story is divided into 2 parts. The first part provides the details of the double murder and its investigation. The initial setting of the railway compartments is explained brilliantly in a few short lines. Someone pulls the emergency brake to halt the night train in the middle of nowhere. The guard in the last coach looks out of the window to check what’s wrong and notices that a few men in the first-class coach are summoning for help through the windows. The first-class coach embedded between a sleeper-car and third-class coach has six compartments – the first 2 and the last two are occupied with the in-between ones being vacant. When the guard reaches the 5th compartment, he notices that a woman is trying to open the door but the door is jammed and the door on the other side is blocked with 2 dead bodies – both shot in the head. The compartment on the right has 4 gentlemen but they are also in the same predicament of the door being winched. No gun is found in the compartment, the woman inside the compartment testifies that someone shot from outside but the neighbors on the right and the left swear that no one except the guard used the aisle! Also, the vestibule exits at both the ends of the coach were guarded, no one was seen exiting the train through any of the doors and all doors were under constant observation by the people who were craning their necks outside the windows, which leads to an impossible murder situation! And the guard is not the culprit! J 
What follows is a detailed investigation from the police – thinking that the murderer must have left the train when the train stopped, they search the area where the train had stopped, no man is found in any nearby village, no stranger was noticed anywhere, there were no other trains – either a freight or a passenger train which the escaped man could have taken. Next, they investigate all the passengers who were in that compartment and the story of every individual matches the facts in the case and hence the police end up clearing everyone. The case remains un-solved.
The second part of the story deals with the murderer confessing on his deathbed to a medical practitioner as to how exactly he committed the murder and escaped.
The solution is too technical and requires a thorough knowledge of the British Railway system to understand the mechanics of the crime – which puts the readers throughout the world at a great disadvantage. A detailed map of the set-up could have improved matters a bit but don’t think it would be sufficient; it would need a series of pictures showing the step by step movement of the criminal to make the reader understand what the author is trying to impart. I being from India and being a rail fan where the railway network was introduced by the British, was a lot more familiar with the terminologies and the set up to an extent, but have to admit the solution was hazy and have only a vague idea as to how it was done.
Unlike some of the others who were frustrated (rightfully so) with this story (saw their reviews online), it didn’t stop me any from enjoying it and hence its inclusion in this post. A few have pointed out that the collection ‘The Mystery of The Sleeping-Car Express and Other Stories’ has some top quality stories (including 5 more railway mysteries) and I am planning to read it if I can get a copy of this book for a fair price.
Probably these two sites with the pictures should help:
The story is set in 1909 – the compartment that fits best our story would the 1900s one and can be viewed here.
This link clearly shows the compartment set up.
But it is incomplete without a picture of the outside of the train and how the compartments were connected to each other – couldn’t get it in the limited time that I spent on it.

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