Monday, December 23, 2013
The Modern Murder on a Train
Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express has always been one of my favorite mysteries. You know that a man was murdered when the train was stopped in its tracks (wow, a literal use of the term) by a snowstorm in Yugoslavia. Figuring out who did it when no one saw the killer is something else again. Some readers think it was Hercule Poirot's finest case.
With modern communication tools and multiple travel options it gets harder to isolate characters for more than a brief time. Nevada Barr does it well with the Anna Pigeon mystery, Firestorm. Park ranger Anna is with a group fighting a forest fire when the fire and a then murder leave two dead. A snowstorm keeps rescuers and law enforcement away for more than a day. It's not a closed-room murder, but it's definitely a whodunit with limited suspects and no way for them to leave the scene.
Robert B. Parker's Spencer generally roams the streets of Boston, but in Rough Weather he's hired to protect the mother of the bride at the daughter's wedding -- which is on an island, complete with a raging storm. Although someone could argue an unknown person snuck onto the island at some point, weather makes it unlikely and there are enough motives among the wedding guests.
Both of these books are limited by time as much as environment-- the murder has to be solved before a storm lifts.
Perhaps no one has done the 'closed environment' better than Edgar Allen Poe in The Rue Morgue, which adds the locked-room element and a twist that even the best reader-detective is not likely to see coming. Not a modern mystery, but perhaps a good challenge for mystery writers. I can't think of a better locked-room type story in a modern novel. Maybe time for someone to write one...
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For more on Elaine Orr's writing, click here. She's thinking of a murder in an island lighthouse.