Strangers on a Train, Or When Sherlock Met Jane

In this most devoutly-to-be-wished encounter between two of fiction’s greatest detectives, the role of Miss Jane Marple is elaborated by Ashley Weaver, that of Mr. Sherlock Holmes by Lyndsay Faye. This is the first of a group of posts commemorating the 70th anniversary of Mystery Writers of America, an organization whose members have contributed this exclusive content for the celebratory delight of other crime fans.

 

Miss Jane Marple stood in the doorway of the dining car, adjusting herself for a moment to the movement of the train before following the kindly attendant to the only remaining seat. She would be dining with a stranger and had hoped for a bit of good conversation to pass the time. However, her first glance at the gentleman seated at her table was not encouraging. He did not look as though he would enjoy sharing a friendly meal. In fact, he did not look as though he enjoyed eating at all. Practically skin and bones, poor thing.

“Good evening,” she said, taking the seat across from him.

 

Mr. Sherlock Holmes’s steely eyes flicked upwards as a woman with hair snowy as goose down and a flushed, wrinkled face approached in the wake of the train attendant who obviously was fighting an internal war between genuine love of his two—no, three—daughters and a long-held fascination with wagering large sums on cockfighting. Though the dining car was entirely full, the detective had held hopes of dining (or failing to dine, as he intended, in favor of sipping a good brandy and marshalling his thoughts) alone; his mission to track the fugitive jewelry thief Aloysius Fawkesberry was at the behest of the Prime Minister himself.

The elderly lady sat and greeted him, smiling. Holmes bit back a sigh, wondering whether he would be asked to put out his cigarette.

“Good evening.”  His voice was cool but not uncourteous. “A gardener, I see by the speck of loam under your right forefinger, and by the woolen thread on your sleeve a knitter to boot.”

 

“Dear me. How clever of you.” Miss Marple smiled indulgently. She had not been brought up to comment on the cleanliness of other people’s fingernails, but things were so much different now than they had been in her day.   

She carefully removed the thread from her sleeve as she took the gentleman’s measure. He reminded her somewhat of William Arterton, the vicar’s eldest son. It wasn’t only the tall, thin frame, angular features, and somewhat sallow complexion. That young man had always been apt to say whatever came into his head, whether or not it was appropriate. There had been no malice in it, of course. He had simply enjoyed demonstrating how much smarter he was than other people. Of course, it had gotten him into trouble eventually.

Well, no matter. Since this gentleman had brought up the knitting, perhaps he wouldn’t mind if she removed her yarn and needles from her knitting bag after dinner. She was working on a sweater for her nephew Raymond and hoped to finish it by the journey’s end.

 

“Simplicity itself,” Holmes replied to the affable spinster (her ring finger was empty and appeared to the sleuth to have always been so). She was of a type he seldom encountered in his professional life: outwardly so innocuous as to border on banal, well off, though not affluent (her grey traveling suit was perfectly tailored but between four and six years old), and probably involved in her local gardening club and church affairs.  Such women were not to be trusted.  She reminded him of a septuagenarian who had administered arsenic to a series of her granddaughter’s beaus in an effort to retain control of the young woman’s eighty pounds a year.

Holmes took an experimental draught of smoke. When the woman merely took out a set of knitting needles, he exhaled in profound relief.

“For my nephew, Raymond,” she explained, displaying a partially finished maroon sleeve. “He is a well-known author, quite a successful young man, but apt to forget to dress warmly.”

“A profession with which I am far too familiar,” Holmes drawled.

She brightened. “Oh, are you a man of letters as well?”

“God, no.” Holmes shuddered, head listing against the back of the booth. “I live with one, however.”

“Then what is your trade, may I ask?”

“I am a consulting detective.”

“My heavens,” she said mildly. “That must be very interesting.”

“It does brighten the frightful tedium of everyday existence a bit.”

“You knew I was a knitter and a gardener. You must be quite observant.”

“Observation is my unique oeuvre.” Holmes, finding himself in a preening humor, waved his long fingers at the booth opposite. “Take that man there, for example.”

 

The gentleman nodded toward a man seated on the opposite side of the dining car.

“He obviously wishes to go unrecognized, has embarked suddenly upon a long journey with little preparation, and was, before he came into the dining car, in an extreme state of agitation which he has barely managed to suppress.”

“Yes, I had drawn much the same conclusion myself,” she said, sparing a glance at the man her traveling companion had indicated before going back to her knitting.

She felt the gentleman’s sharp eyes upon her from across the table.

“Indeed?” She thought she detected a distinct skepticism in his tone. She had heard it in Raymond’s often enough.

Her companion leaned forward. “Was it the tanned skin beneath his beard, indicating the facial hair is of recent origin; the frayed hems of his new trousers, which say he lacked sufficient time to have them altered to the correct length; or the flecks of phosphorus sesquisulfide and tobacco on his vest, which signify unsteady hands when trying repeatedly to light his pipe, that drew your attention to the fact?”   

“Oh, my, nothing like that,” she answered, her eyes not leaving her yarn. This particular stitch required the utmost concentration. “It’s his posture, you see.”

“His posture.”

“Yes, the way he hunches his shoulders makes it seem as though he doesn’t wish to call attention to himself. And he looks bone weary, poor dear, which led me to assume he has been traveling a good distance without enough rest.”

“I commend you on your astuteness, madam,” the gentleman said, and she was quite sure he was humoring her.

“And the way he pushes his food about his plate rather than eating it says he is troubled by something. In fact, it reminds me exactly of Wilford Sims. He was always a nervy boy and whenever he was deeply affected by sadness or agitation, he couldn’t eat a bite.  That was how he was found out in the end.”

“Found out?”

 

The diminutive spinster’s robin’s-egg eyes took on a reflective cast.  “My, yes, a dreadful business—he had embezzled a simply enormous sum from his uncle’s shipping concern. The more he stole, the less he ate, until finally he confessed all, saying he should prefer to enjoy a good roast with onion gravy again than to die a rich man. He got ten years initially, but they reduced the sentence when he was so compliant as to provide the prosecution with all the evidence they required. The poor creature.”

Holmes found himself frowning in puzzlement. He glanced at the man opposite—his shoulders were indeed hunched, as if the fellow were attempting to hide within a shell. The sleuth’s keen eyes noted that the ticket stub emerging from his front breast pocket had no return. Something itched at the back of Holmes’s mind, as if he had woken up from a vivid dream which was already slipping through his fingers.

“I shouldn’t be surprised if that unfortunate gentleman had something on his conscience,” the old woman continued.

“Quite,” said Holmes shortly. “But—”

The steward’s approach interrupted them. The demure old woman looked up from her knitting with a half-smile and ordered a ham sandwich.  

“And for you, sir?” the steward asked.

Holmes gave an impatient twitch of the hand holding his cigarette. “I never could stomach the notion of eating on Tuesdays.”

“You should take something to nourish you,” his companion insisted with a twinkle in her eye. “We wouldn’t want to suspect you of lingering guilt, would we?”

“I really couldn’t possibly.”

“Suit yourself, but the fare on this line is very passable.”

“Whatever you suggest,” Holmes commanded, shooing the steward away so he could get another look at the man across from them.

“The egg and cress—”

“Fine.”

“If you please—”

“I don’t,” Holmes sniffed. The steward at last made to depart, writing the order with an annoyed flourish. The other fellow, the hunched one, was lifting his valise, clutching it as if it were a newborn.

“You’ll be glad of a little refreshment,” the old lady said. “Why, you remind me of—”

“By Jove!” Holmes exclaimed, tossing his cigarette to the floor before diving to tackled the departing stranger in an implacable baritsu hold.

 

Miss Marple watched in surprise as her dinner companion launched himself at the man they had just been discussing and pinned him to the ground. She had not taken her new friend for such an excitable young man.

“Is everything quite all right?” she asked.

“I’ve caught him!” he cried in triumph, “Aloysius Fawkesberry, the jewel thief! I’ve been hot on his trail since I left London, and here he is at last.”

“Dear me,” Miss Marple said. So that was it. Her gaze shifted to the guilty gentleman. “You’ll feel much better now that the truth is out, I can assure you.”

Two porters came to see about the commotion, and after some discussion had taken the thief away to detain him.

At last her companion returned to their table, straightening his necktie. There was a certain gleam in his eye and he looked suddenly much healthier than he had moments before. “I hope I haven’t caused you undue alarm,” he said. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever been involved in capturing a criminal.”

She looked up at him and smiled. “On occasion.”

He frowned slightly. “Indeed? Well, I’m afraid I must go and send a wire to Scotland Yard. But please allow me to pay for your dinner.”

“Why, thank you,” said Miss Marple. What a thoughtful gentleman. She felt the sudden desire to do something for in him return. And then it came to her. Raymond would understand.

She quickly finished the remaining stitch, tied it off, and held up the sweater. “I’d like you to have this.”

He hesitated, obviously reluctant to accept such a personal gift.

“I insist,” she urged him.

He took the sweater, regarding it with some great emotion. “Thank you, madam,” he said stiffly. She supposed he was embarrassed.

He left then without further ado, and the steward brought her ham sandwich, which she began to eat with pleasure. All the excitement had built up her appetite.

That was the trouble with traveling. One never knew what might happen next. Consulting detectives and jewel thieves were all quite exhilarating,  but she would be glad indeed to return to the peace and quiet of her comfortable cottage in St. Mary Mead.

She finished her sandwich and pulled out a fresh skein of yarn to start another sweater for Raymond.

 

Train papercut via ArtiiCraft on Folksy


Lyndsay Faye is the international bestselling author of the Edgar-nominated Timothy Wilde series. The third novel, The Fatal Flame, will be pulished in May, 2015. Her work has been translated into 14 languages, and she's part of the Baker Street Babes podcast. She tweets @LyndsayFaye.

Ashley Weaver has worked in libraries since she was 14, and is the branch manager at Oberlin, the headquarters branch of the Allen Parish Libraries in Louisiana. Her first novel, Murder at the Brightwell, is a historical mystery featuring amateur sleuth Amory Ames, which has been nominated for the 2015 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Comments

  1. Gregory Sparks

    I love it.

  2. Susan Wilkinson

    I liked it that two observant mystery solvers meet on the train, indulging in a kind of mental duel. I grew up reading mysteries, my Nancy Drews to my mother’s collection of Christie, Leslie Ford, Mary Roberts Rinehart etc.

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