By Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957).
First appearance: ? (1921).
Reprinted in The Second Omnibus of Crime (1932) (TOC HERE).
Collected in The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express and Other Stories (1956).
Short story (22 pages).
No one who was in England in the autumn of 1909 can fail to remember the terrible tragedy which took place in a Northwestern express between Preston and Carlisle. The affair attracted enormous attention at the time, not only because of the arresting nature of the events themselves, but even more for the absolute mystery in which they were shrouded.An ordinary train car becomes, for one of the passengers, a scene of horror and, for Scotland Yard, the site of an apparently unmotivated murder committed by a killer who has managed to disappear, leaving not a trace:
As the guard peered in through the glass he saw that he was in the presence of a tragedy.
Tugging desperately at the handle of the corridor door stood a lady, her face blanched, her eyes starting from her head, and her features frozen into an expression of deadly fear and horror. As she pulled she kept glancing over her shoulder, as if some dreadful apparition lurked in the shadows behind. As Jones sprang forward to open the door his eyes followed the direction of her gaze, and he drew in his breath sharply.
At the far side of the compartment, facing the engine and huddled down in the corner, was the body of a woman. She lay limp and inert, with head tilted back at an unnatural angle into the cushions and a hand hanging helplessly down over the edge of the seat. She might have been thirty years of age, and was dressed in a reddish-brown fur coat with toque to match. But these details the guard hardly glanced at, his attention being riveted to her forehead. There, above the left eyebrow, was a sinister little hole, from which the blood had oozed down the coat and formed a tiny pool on the seat. That she was dead was obvious.
But this was not all. On the seat opposite her lay a man, and, as far as Guard Jones could see, he also was dead.
He apparently had been sitting in the corner seat, and had fallen forward so that his chest lay across the knees of the woman and his head hung down towards the floor. He was all bunched and twisted up—just a shapeless mass in a grey frieze overcoat, with dark hair at the back of what could be seen of his head. But under that head the guard caught the glint of falling drops, while a dark, ominous stain grew on the floor beneath.
Jones flung himself on the door, but it would not move. It stood fixed, an inch open, jammed in some mysterious way, imprisoning the lady with her terrible companions.
~ Mr. and Mrs. Horatio Llewelyn:
"He was of kindly though somewhat passionate disposition, and, so far as could be learnt, had not an enemy in the world," while "She also, so far as was known, had no enemy, nor could any motive for the tragedy be suggested."
~ Guard Jones:
Cool and efficient, but just a little too late.
~ Miss Blair-Booth:
Although she witnesses the murders from just a few feet away, she couldn't possibly identify the killer.
~ Hubert Black:
"I saw almost at a glance that nothing could be done for him, in fact, his life was a matter of a few hours."
~ The Chief of Scotland Yard:
". . . inspector, you have proved the murderer was in the coach at the time of the crime, that he was not in it when it was searched, and that he did not leave it in the interval. I don't know that that is a very creditable conclusion."
~ The unnamed inspector in charge of the case:
"I know, sir. I regret it extremely, but that's the difficulty I have been up against from the start."
~ "An obscure medical practitioner":
The beneficiary of "the singular coincidence" by which he comes "to learn the solution of this extraordinary mystery."
- As usual, Wikipedia HERE and the GAD Wiki HERE should prove helpful; concerning this story the latter informs us:
"The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express" (1921), is apparently Crofts' earliest short story. It has been widely reprinted as a "classic". But I have to confess that I was simply unable to understand the story. It depends heavily on the physical properties of trains and railway engines of the era, and I am simply too ignorant about these things to follow the tale. This story cries out for multi-media extension, with photographs and diagrams of period trains, glossaries of technical terms, and a detailed commentary on Crofts' solution, which I found especially incomprehensible. This is not intended as a criticism of Crofts' work, just as an indication of a specialized technical subject that has now vanished into the mists of time. However, I am not sure that even if I understood this story, I would enjoy any mystery given such a purely technical solution. — Mike Grost, GAD Wiki- So far the only books by Crofts currently floating free of short-sighted copyright encum-brances that we could find are HERE.
- A general if brief history of British railways is HERE, and one dealing with the time period of our story is HERE.
- Our last railroad mystery, one of a growing number it seems, is HERE.
The bottom line: "A private railroad car is not an acquired taste. One takes to it immediately."
— Eleanor Robson Belmont