The Rockies Chronicles: Day three

[Photomontage download: Go West]

One of Agatha Christie’s most celebrated novels is Murder on the Orient Express. I won’t keep you in too much suspense and reveal – Spoiler Alert! – that it is about a murder. On the Orient Express. Despite the relative complexity of the title, the plot line is simple: there is a murder on a rolling train, and then the train grinds to a halt in the middle of a snowstorm. Was the murderer someone on the train (in the same car) or someone who came on board from one of the unpronounceable Yugoslav stops en route for that express purpose? I won’t give away the solution, only to say – another Spoiler Alert!! – that Poirot does indeed solve the murder.

The novel was made into three movies. The best version, at least in my view, is from 1974, with Albert Finney playing detective. He gives the performance of his life. The Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman won a Supporting Actress Oscar – her third – for playing a Swedish governess. She did a great job with the Swedish accent. It is not clear, however, whether she got it because she was sick or because she managed to utter the words “little brown babies” without breaking out into a hysterical laughter. Aside from the iffy Oscar and a stellar cast, the movie is know for an amazing score and a beautifully-shot train departure scene.

None of which would be of any relevance at all had it not been for the stop at Melville, Saskatchewan and the conversation that flowed into the third day of the trip.

The inspiration was not so much Melville as the Melville train station. Or what had once been the Melville train station. Or what we thought might have been the Melville train station. It was a relatively good-sized building, now fallen into disrepair and disuse. Given its size, we wondered if it had ever been more than a train station – assuming it had ever been the train station – and if so, whether CP had had some sort of a “Melville Manor” hotel at the site. … You can see the rest. I mean, let’s be honest, any place called “Melville Manor” demands a murder or two to go with it.

And that’s how The Melville Manor Murders was born.

In composing a murder mystery, once the location is selected you need a victim. The victim does not need to be compelling, as long as he or she is distinctive. Moreover, the victim – even if you know nothing about him or her – should, through simple details, evoke either pity or disgust. In the case of our middle-of-Saskatchewan train station murder, we started with the name: Olga Blavatska. The rest followed: “a woman of a certain age”, found dead, strangled, in a cheap dress and expensively done nails and make-up.

You also need a prime suspect, and the more icky the person or his or her appearance, the better. How about a swarthy, foppish Eastern European diplomat? A dipsomaniac. Unsubtle womanizer – think “blue dress”. Condescending to the staff and unpleasant to the other guests. Does not like to bathe. Has to be him, the guests whisper. Naturally, it would not be a mystery if the prime suspect were the real killer. Our diplomat has to be found dead in a swamp the morning after, bludgeoned to death by a lead pipe. Or, this being the trainyards of Melville, Saskatchewan, a two-by-four.

When you are going through the Prairies with no Wi-Fi and no mobile reception, you do end up spending a lot of time talking. Mostly to yourself, but occasionally you find an ear you can abuse. Our conversation (me talking, the rest suffering) of the second day overflowed into the third, mostly because of the detective. We couldn’t fix him. He had to be hard-drinking and morally suspect, corrupt to the core, of course. But no dolt: look past the fact that he wakes up in his own vomit every morning, and you discover that he really does have a knack for solving murders. Underneath the cold and heartless exterior, there would be an even colder, more heartless bastard struggling to break free. We could not settle on a name, though; the debate started in Saskatchewan and was finally settled in Edmonton through the intervention of one of the other (real) passengers: Zed Protheroe. The detective, that is, not the passenger. In honour of the birthplace of the detective, the second novel would be called Body in the Observation Car. We don’t yet know who will be the victim. Probably a foppish Eastern European diplomat; the prime suspect, a woman of a certain age, in an expensive dress with chewed-through nails.

The two-volume Detective Protheroe mysteries having found their direction and characters, we settled down, after Jasper, to enjoy the amazing spectacle of the Rockies. Rivers, mountains, bridges, tunnels, waterfalls, glaciers in the distance, deep and wide valleys, forbidding peaks, fog and cloud and rain and sunshine … The scenery is every bit as magnificent as the postcards tell you, and then some.

You could tell by the hushed voices, the unseemly early scramble for seats in the Observation Car, and the fact that some even seemed to be wearing adult diapers, so they don’t have to give up their spot for the duration of the ride through the Rockies. I exaggerate.

As the day wound down, we went down to the dining car for our last full dinner, facing a setting sun, running along the North Thompson River.

In Murder on the Orient Express, Ingrid Bergman’s character was joined by a stellar cast of counts, countesses and colonial colonels on board. I was not, of course, expecting to rub shoulders with royalty but you do wonder, sometimes, whom you might run into on a train crossing the country. We did have at least one Very Important Person sitting right in front of us for the Rockies. But the human highlight of the evening, and indeed the whole trip, was the company at our last dinner.

A retired English couple. One had been born and raised in the Middle East, and had specialised in Byzantine and Middle Eastern Art. I asked what she thought of the theories one of my favourite art critics – a Very Important Person in his own right – and she mentioned that she had been a student of his. Suddenly, the author I had devoured, the presenter I had watched on TV, the Art Historian whose biography I had read, was one person removed from me. In the Rockies, in a train dining car. The husband was an astronomer. He was telling us of party tricks one of his mathematician friends plays; I asked him about the latest science book I had read – an obscure experiment in Texas to detect gravity waves; the party trickster was the widow of the author of the gravity experiment … if the evening had dragged on, we would have ended up long lost first cousins. No countesses, but the next best thing: a delightful couple who put us one degree of separation away from two authors on my bookshelf, one of whom has been an artistic and philosophical hero of mine. This is how life improves on art …

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