Are you familiar with the Mystery Readers Journal magazine? It’s dedicated to all people interested in reading stories and articles related to the broad field of mystery fiction, and, in each issue, features one topic from that field. For example — the recent issue featured “Mysteries in Transit,” and, since that fit right in with my novel, JOURNEY TO DIE FOR, I submitted an article. The article was accepted and, with permission, is reproduced here. For more information, go to
WHAT IS IT ABOUT A CHOO-CHOO TRAIN?
Whether you’re eight or eighty, isn’t there something about a train that causes a touch of excitement? These days few have opportunities to ride historic trains, but still, hear “whoooah-woo” and “choo-choo-choo,” and imagination can go crazy. (Need I explain why Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie’s most popular mystery novels?)
My own elaborate train adventures began when six adults (parents, grandparents, great aunt and uncle) decided the time had come for one seven-year-0ld to experience a ride on a real train. Access to such a train was easy. Near the aunt and uncle’s home in Northwest Arkansas, the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad’s restored 1920′s passenger excursion train makes regular weekly and special-event round-trips from Springdale to Van Buren, AR during most of the year.
Tickets were purchased, and excited adults, accompanied by one rather “ho-hum” little girl, spent a Saturday riding the rails, and exploring the historic Arkansas town of Van Buren during the train’s four-hour lay-over. Six of us had a terrific time. The seventh had her hand-held whatever.
Wild imagination takes over.
The aunt in this story, name of Radine, is a mystery author with a series of published novels set at Arkansas tourist treats. Novel number five in the series, A River to Die For, (want to experience thrills at Buffalo National River?) was ready to achieve publication at the time. What next? Well now, how about a story featuring the excursion train? It would be–um–ah–a–Journey to Die For.
Yes! The train staff welcomes me and my novel idea being born. For the second time I board the A&M Train and settle into a green plush seat to observe, absorb, and take notes.
So, what if? That’s how must novels start.
Imagine this: On-going series’ main characters are riding the train as a special anniversary treat for the woman, Carrie McCrite. Husband, Henry King, who’s gift it is, accompanies her, and Journey to Die For begins its opening scene.
Two men, looking somewhat alike, but acting as strangers, sit in front of them on the train, attracting Carrie’s attention throughout the ride, though Henry reminds her several times this is none of her business. He fears her tendency to get involved in others’ complicated lives and problems will, once more, cause trouble and spoil his anniversary gift.
“Van Buren, Arkansas,” the conductor says. “Everyone enjoy the town, and be back here in the train station by 2:00 for the return trip.”
Van Buren was founded in 1809 (as Phillips’ Landing) to sell wood to steamboats on the Arkansas River. Today, unusual details along Van Buren’s vibrantly restored Main Street entertain the reader and Carrie as she browses jewelry and antiques shops, seeing some surprising items for sale. She eventually buys a lovely blue-green pendant that matches her eyes (Henry says) and looks like an emerald–but of course can’t be for the small price asked. Meanwhile, Henry has been sitting on a sidewalk bench, people-watching. When the two of them walk down Main Street to the bank of the Arkansas River (“Looks as wide as the Mississippi at Memphis,” Carrie says), a heap of wet rags seen from a park sidewalk is, at a closer look, a dead body. Is it one of the men from the train?
Henry, a retired Kansas City Police Major, is asked by the Van Buren Police Chief to help with research into the life of the murdered man. The man’s home was in Kansas City, and Carrie and Henry have already planned a trip there to visit Henry’s daughter and her family. Henry doesn’t want to be involved in the investigation, afraid secrets from his past will be uncovered. Carrie, knowing nothing about this, is “rarin’ to go” to help the chief. She prevails.
One of Kansas City’s tourist attractions is a transportation museum and, while visiting there, Carrie and Henry discover a link to the Van Buren murder. Henry’s friends in the Kansas City Police Department get involved when Carrie is attacked. The couple is then moved from their motel to a safe house while crime research continues.
(Isn’t this fun?)
Eventually, after a fire scare at the safe house and other dangers, we move from trains to steamboats. Treasures that could have come from boats sunk during the Civil War have begun appearing in Van Buren shops. And the “emerald?” Someone sure is eager to get it back.
In the exciting (!) climax, there’s a gun battle in a shop full of china and crystal. Oh, was that fun to imagine. Well, fun for the most part since three people–the good and the evil–do get in the way of gunfire and falling shelves of glassware. But isn’t that all in a day’s work for amateur detectives who will try to solve other people’s problems?
And, for now, that’s all folks!