Putting Murder on the Right Track
By Sandra Balzo
I love classic locked room mysteries--you know, suspects trapped in an isolated country house or snow-blanketed mountain villa. And if that locked room is moving, as is the case in my favorite Agatha Christie book, Murder on the Orient Express, I am hooked big-time.
That's why it's hard to believe it took eight books in my Maggy Thorsen coffeehouse mysteries to come up with the concept of Murder on the Orient Espresso.
In Murder on the Orient Espresso, I have my Wisconsin coffeehouse owner accompany her main squeeze, Sheriff Jake Pavlik, to South Florida, where he's been asked to speak at a crime-writers' conference.
Maggy is anticipating a romantic arrival in their hotel suite, but the couple is expected to attend a preliminary event: an excursion by train into the Everglades to re-enact Christie's classic.
Dropping their suitcases in their postponed love nest, Maggy and Pavlik are hustled off to the departure station. In keeping with the conference's "Murder on the Orient Espresso" theme and a limited budget, this inaugural train ride will feature a cash bar, caffeine-infused martinis and a sheet cake shaped like the fictional murder victim, serving knife plunged into his icing-covered chest.
Like Christie's novel, Espresso has a diagram of our fictional train, and I've also included a "playbill," pairing my characters with the Christie roles they play. My cast includes a gaggle of aspiring writers of varying talents and ambition, a literary agent and two guests of honor--womanizing reviewer Laurence Potter, who will play Hercule Poirot, with legendary suspense author Rosemary Darlington in the role of Mary Debenham. Darlington has just released her first novel in five years, an erotic romp which Potter absolutely eviscerated in a recent review.
Driven by an unseen engineer, the train chugs into the Everglades. Populated by native alligators, invasive pythons and even the occasional crocodile, this desolate three thousand square mile "sea of grass" was transected east to west by only two routes until I built, however ineptly, my fictional railroad bed across it.
Soon--no surprise--things begin to fall apart on the train. Laurence Potter's wife, a cunning stowaway, suddenly appears. A raging storm rattles the cars with hurricane-force wind and torrential rain. Rumors of infidelity and stolen manuscripts abound. One guest of honor passes out after chasing Dramamine with an espresso martini, and the other goes missing. That cake knife disappears and the train slams to a stop, as though the locomotive hit a brick wall.
But what lurks outside the cars makes everything that has gone on inside seem like a tea party. Or at least a coffee klatch.
As a fairly new resident of South Florida, I knew I'd need to do extensive research on the Everglades and its inhabitants for this book. But the interior setting--that fictional train--should be the easy part, right?
Wrong. From the moment my characters stepped onto the station platform, I had questions.
How are the train cars connected? And disconnected? How is a sleeper car laid out? Do doors "slide" or "open"? Right to left or left to right? In or out?
Some of these things I gleaned from experience. Others could be researched online. (God bless YouTube and people who videotape as they stroll through trains.) Yet questions remained.
Luckily, my friend Ted Hertel in Milwaukee has trains in his blood. Or at least his bloodline. Ted's sister works for Amtrak and her husband Kevin just retired as an engineer.
I had no intention of duplicating an Amtrak train--in fact, just the opposite. The Orient Espresso could not be run nearly as well, for my purposes. But I still needed to learn the terminology and inner workings of rail travel to find out whether what I was envisioning was even plausible.
So, I called Ted's brother-in-law:
"Thanks so much for talking to me, Kevin," I started out. "Now as an engineer you'd be in charge of the train, correct?"
"No, actually the conductor is. I take orders from him or her."
I looked at the phone. "You mean the person collecting the tickets?"
"I had no idea. So if the train were to derail--"
"On the ground."
"Well, yes. The story is set in the Everglades, so they wouldn't be going over a bridge or--"
"No, I'm sorry. 'On the ground," is our term for derailed. Meaning we're no longer on the track, but, instead . . ."
". . . on the ground," I finished for him, making a note. "Perfect. Now if you were 'on the ground,' how would dispatchers know where the train is? GPS?
"I suppose new trains will have GPS. But traditionally, the train breaks an electrical circuit on the track as it passes certain points--what we call 'knocking down a signal.'"
Cool. "And if you didn't knock down the next signal, they'd know something was wrong?"
"As well as what block you're in."
"Block?" Phone on speaker now, I was scribbling furiously. "Like a city block?
"A block is a segment of the route. Block A, Block B and so on. They don't correspond to street blocks."
"I guess that makes sense, given you're not traveling on streets. Oh, before I forget: Can you tell me where the odometer is located on the instrument panel?"
"What's not?" I stop writing.
"There's no odometer in the locomotive--at least one that the engineer has access to."
Huh. "But how do you know how far you've traveled?"
I can only imagine Kevin's pitying look. "Umm, a train travels on a track from station to station. Over and over and over again."
"Ohhh." Light dawned. "So you're saying it's not as if you need to turn left in, say, two miles?"
"You got it."
Not really, but it was nice of Kevin to think so. And even kinder of him to continue gently correcting my misconceptions and answering my questions.
But those questions--and, more importantly, the answers and where they took the conversation--resulted in corresponding twists in the book. Things that even I didn't see coming.
Which just goes to show: Sometimes starting off on the wrong track takes you exactly where you were meant to go in the first place.
Sandra Balzo is an award-winning author of crime fiction, including nine books in two different mystery series from Severn House--the Maggy Thorsen Coffeehouse Mysteries and Main Street Murders, set in the High Country of North Carolina. Balzo's books have garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, while being recommended to readers of Janet Evanovich, Charlaine Harris, Mary Daheim, Joan Hess and Margaret Maron. A Wisconsin native, Sandy now splits her time between South Florida and North Carolina.