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Thriller on the Express

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"The hour is two, London time. Tea has been served. A passenger in first class is dead. Thank you."
The Conductor, Fallen London, The Twelve-Fifteen from Moloch Street

Train journeys provide a number of advantages for plotting a thriller. They are an enclosed space with a sense of claustrophobia, uncomfortable proximity to strangers with several good justifications for why people can't leave. Long distance train journeys take several days during which the train is locked into a course going through wild terrain with no reception. This may or may not be the best time to commit a murder but it's a damn good time to write about one.

Thus it is that several works create thrillers set around a train. Despite all the advantages noted above, there may need to be adjustments made. Sometimes you just need that extra space or cubby holes to hide in so they'll make use of those places on trains people won't normally see, the kitchen car and luggage compartment. If train companies have made any security measures to stop people walking off the back door or getting onto the roof, they won't be in this film.


The train doesn't necessarily have to be part of the whole work. You might have a train based episode in a series but it won't be much of a Bottle Episode since it requires a new set and extras. There may be brief departures from the train but the time spent on the train should be enough to set up enough plot elements to stop people wandering too far or going to get help.

The Orient Express is a popular choice for the location, but the Moscow-Warsaw-Berlin-Paris "Ost-West Express" with its very distinctive green and yellow carriages plus Soviet crest is good for a Cold War story.

Compare Train Job. If it's an airplane instead of a train, that's Death in the Clouds. May occasionally but not frequently contain a Traintop Battle, most likely as a climax.

Not to be confused with dancing to Michael Jackson's Thriller on a train.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • The anime adaption of Ace Attorney features a new case written specifically for the anime that wasn’t in the game, and the whole case takes place on a train.
  • Baccano!'s "The Grand Punk Railroad" plotline has several criminal plans clashing at each other, most of which occurs—wait for it—on the transcontinental express train, The Flying Pussyfoot.
  • Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba: Chapters 53-66 of Kimetsu no Yaiba follow Tanjiro, Nezuko, Inosuke, and Zenitsu boarding the Infinity Train to meet the high-ranking demon slayer Rengoku, and clashing with powerful demons aboard.
  • Case Closed has more than one case settled on a train. Also, an important arc called "Mystery Train".
  • Fullmetal Alchemist has a terrorist attack on a train in the early stories. Too bad for him that Ed and Al are on board.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Golden Wind: Chapters 47-60 of the manga, and episodes 14-16 of the anime, feature Bucciarati's team fighting the hitmen Pesci and Prosciutto on a train, where Bucciarati and Mista alone are able to protect the rest of the group from the La Squadra members. This story arc also introduces the character Coco Jumbo, whose abilities are frequently used for the rest of Golden Wind.
  • Joker Game episode 6 takes place on the Asia Express when a Soviet diplomat looking to defect from his country ends up murdered before he can make contact with D Agency spy Tazaki.
  • The Two Detectives arc of Moriarty the Patriot takes place on the train from Durham to London, and features William and Sherlock running into each other by chance and teaming up to solve a murder committed on the train before the murderer has a chance to escape.
  • Soul Eater: episode 30 of the anime, "The Red Hot Runaway Express". Kid, Patty, and Liz have to board the speeding train and fight an enemy on board for possession of a magical artifact, while a third party outside is fighting both sides.

    Comic Books 
  • The Sin City short story "Wrong Track" features a man who thinks he has gotten lucky by finding a lover on a train. It turns out, she is an assassin who snaps his neck and throws him off the train.
  • One issue of The Tomb of Dracula had the Count doing his thing on a moving train. Coincidentally, the vampire killers after him are also on the train.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Breakheart Pass, a train with medical supplies and small U.S. Army unit is heading through Rocky mountains towards plagued Fort Humboldt. Among its passengers are the territory governor, a priest, a doctor and U.S. Marshal with his prisoner, John Deakin. However, nothing on that train is what it seems.
  • Bullet Train follows a group of competing professional killers fighting over a MacGuffin on a Japanese bullet train.
  • The Cassandra Crossing: A terrorist breaks into a NATO lab in Geneva, accidentally infects himself with an artificial virus, and escapes on a transcontinental express train. A US General Ripper finds out about this incident and orders the train not only sealed but rerouted to Poland and dropped into a gorge, all thousand passengers aboard killed, and any evidence of this top-secret biological weapon outside the lab destroyed that way.
  • In Disaster on the Coastliner, a man hijacks a train, planning to cause a collision in order to avenge his wife and child, who died in a previous derailment.
  • In Horror Express, passengers of Trans-Siberian Express are trapped onboard with a brain-absorbing alien from ancient times.
  • James Bond:
  • Hitchcock's spy thriller The Lady Vanishes. A old lady who had befriend a young woman on a train vanishes. This added a psychological element because everybody else denies seeing the old woman and there's no apparent way they are all in a conspiracy. One them is a nun and two of them are English toffs who don't want to be held up and miss the cricket.
  • The Narrow Margin (and its 1990 remake) has a woman who witnessed a mob hit hiding on a train, and hitmen searching for her.
  • In Runaway Train, tension is building between a train operator and the two escaped convicts who hijacked the vessel made of four locomotives.
  • Shanghai Express involves Chinese rebel bandits waylaying a train and holding the passengers hostage.
  • In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Watson and his wife are on a train for their honeymoon. However, Moriarty sends a number of henchmen dressed as British redcoats to attack them as a distraction for Holmes, who snuck onto the train earlier disguised as a woman and hid in the lavatory. Holmes throws Mary off the train deliberately before he and Watson manage to defeat Moriarty's men.
  • The Gene Wilder- Richard Pryor film Silver Streak has Wilder's character see a man thrown from a train. The film doesn't stay on the train, in fact he meets Pryor's character off the train, but in that first stretch he gets set up for the crime which means that he gets isolated from society and has to get back onto the train to solve the issue himself.
  • Snakes from a victim of a curse start attacking people on train onroute to L.A. in Snakes On A Train.
  • Snowpiercer is a dystopian scifi action movie set entirely on a highly-advanced train, endlessly travelling through a post-apocalyptic frozen Earth.
  • The 1946 Sherlock Holmes film Terror By Night has the detective solving a case of murder and a theft of a priceless diamond in a train. The film was touted with the Tag Line "One Way Ticket To DEATH!"
  • The Slasher Movie Terror Train has a killer extracting revenge on a train full of masked party-goers.
  • Train, where the eponymous vehicle turns out to be operated by organ snatchers.
  • Train to Busan documents the outbreak of a Zombie Apocalypse on board a train bound to Busan.
  • Transsiberrian takes the elements of this trope to the extreme. It's the longest train journey in the world against some of the most famously inhospitable territory involving Americans travelling from China to Moscow. In order to work in some believable chase and action sequences, they don't stay on the same train but they stick to their guns and have them steal a section of train.
  • The original Under Siege was a well known example of Die Hard On A Boat, so for Under Siege 2: Dark Territory they went for Die Hard On A Train.

  • Alexey Tolstoy's story The Beautiful Stranger is a spy thriller on the Express.
  • Clockwork Century: Dreadnought is largely set on the eponymous train, with a mystery involving exactly what the Dreadnought's mysterious cargo is, and why so many people want it.
  • Hercule Poirot:
    • Murder on the Orient Express: Murder = thriller. The Orient Express = train. Bear in mind it comes from the same author who mastered the Nasty Party, and uses it in much the same way for the purpose of subverting one of the big conventions of that trope.
    • Another Agatha Christie work, The Mystery of the Blue Train: also deals with a homicide on board a train, though unlike Orient Express, the entire novel does not take place on the train. (It's an expanded and relocated version of "The Plymouth Express" in Poirot's Early Cases, which of course is another example.)
    • One of his Labours takes place on a train, trying to figure out the mystery of a young girl disappearing on a French train who later turns up safe and sound in England. She was never on the train, having been impersonated by an actress, part of an art thief gang who snuck a stolen painting in her luggage to get it through customs.
  • James Bond
  • Short story "The Napoli Express" is Lord Darcy's version of Murder on the Orient Express.
  • Merkabah Rider: "The Shomer Express". On a midnight train crossing the desert, a corpse turns up desecrated. Something stalking the passenger cars has assumed its shape, and only the Rider can stop it.
  • 4.50 From Paddington opens with Miss Marple's friend witnessing a murder on a train running next to hers, and the first mystery to be solved is why there is no body to be found on the train, or even lying on the ground near the tracks where it might have been thrown from the train.
  • A Nancy Drew/The Hardy Boys Supermystery titled "Mystery Train" had the titular characters taking a cross-country train ride that inevitably turned into a Busman's Holiday when both a murder and an inexplicable disappearance occurred.
  • The Phryne Fisher novel Murder on the Ballarat Train, although only about a third of the novel is actually set on the train.
  • Subverted in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Bruce-Partington Plans", where a dead body is found near a subway line but the carriages have already been redistributed, meaning there's no hope of finding clues to the murder. The victim was killed in a trainside apartment and then placed on top of the train.
  • In the Solar Pons story "The Adventure of the Orient Express", Parker, at a medical conference in Prague, is cabled by Pons to accompany Baron Egon Von Ruber back to London, on the Orient Express, obeying all commands. Von Ruber is an agent receives microfilm from a dying British agent. Von Ruber then kills a deadly German female agent in their compartment. They avoid the Gestapo and outwit German intelligence.
  • A Wishbone Mysteries book entitled "Disoriented Express" involved the main characters and their friends and acquaintances partaking in a murder mystery role-playing fundraiser event on a 1930s streamlined train en route to a large city that is directly patterned off of Murder on the Orient Express. Joe Talbot even brings the actual book with him on the trip to read, and notices the similarities. But then a real crime happens when the club car at the end of the train is uncoupled from the rest of the train during the night, since it is rumored to still have some kind of valuable treasure on board, as the club car was often used to smuggle valuables during World War II, and soon Wishbone, Joe and his friends are more occupied by the real mystery than the pretend one, but end up solving both anyway.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The aptly-named Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode "T.R.A.C.K.S." takes place largely on a moving public train. The team tries to confiscate an important device on a train, but when one agent takes a very risky move that backfires, the entire team is affected.
  • The Benny Hill Show has a Murder on the Orient Express sketch ("Murder on the Oregon Express") using various US TV detectives (Kojak, McCloud, etc.) along with Hercule Poirot (all played by Benny Hill).
  • Chuck season 3, episode 14, Chuck vs. the Honeymooners. Chuck and Sarah are on a train and see an ETA member and try for an impromptu mission using the other passengers' items as gadgets.
  • CSI: "73 Seconds" is this trope in miniature, as the team investigate a murder that took play on a tram moving between two casinos; with the entire journey taking 73 seconds, so the killer had to be in the car.
  • Doctor Who: "Mummy on the Orient Express" features a series of murders being committed on a replica of the Orient Express that travels through space.
  • The F.B.I.: In "How to Murder an Iron Horse", a disturbed young man blows up a freight train. He is now blackmailing the railroad — he'll do the same to a passenger train unless he is paid $100,000. Jim has to ride on the targeted train in attempt to stop the extortionist.
  • Get Smart had an episode titled "Aboard the Orient Express". No prizes for guessing where the action is set. In it, Max and 99 try to solve the mystery of the deaths of CONTROL couriers while riding the Orient Express.
  • The Goodies parodied this trope in "Daylight Robbery on the Orient Express'', with the Goodies arranging a mystery on a train for a convention of famous detectives..
  • The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries did this in "Mystery on the Avalanche Express". While on holiday in Hungary, a troubled girl uses Frank to get away from her pursuers, by kissing him. Nancy Drew is also dragged into the ploy, with a bag-switch. On the train, danger around every corner. What's next?
  • Laverne & Shirley - "Murder on the Moosejaw Express". While on a train heading to Canada, the girls end up in the middle of espionage and murder. After an injured man comes to them warning, "Beware of the bald man", he dies. Who is the bald man and will the girls escape certain danger?
  • Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: "Murder on the Ballarat Train" opens with Phyrne and Dot taking a journey on the Ballarat train that is interrupted by a murder. A large part of the episode is spent on the train before the action returns to Melbourne.
  • Moonlighting: In "Next Stop Murder", Agnes DiPesto wins a place on a Murder Mystery Train hosted by a famous mystery writer. Dave and Maddie, there to see Agnes off, get stuck on the train and are roped in to investigate when the writer suddenly dies.
  • The Murder, She Wrote move South by Southwest begins as a version of The Lady Vanishes, with Jessica on a train to El Paso.
    • The episode "Murder Takes The Bus" has most of the trappings of a Thriller on the Express, only...
  • Murdoch Mysteries has the tense episode "Midnight Train to Kingston." Detective Murdoch, Inspector Brackenreid, Dr. Ogden and several others are transporting serial killer James Gillies to the prison in Kingston, Ontario where he is scheduled to be executed the next day. It creates a bit of a stir among the passengers when they learn who is being transported. Among them are Aaron Rauls, a late arrival on the train and Nathaniel Henry. Both come under suspicion when the police find a dead man, Dennis Bolton who was released from the Don jail just a week ago. There's no direct connection between Bolton and Gillies but both were in the same jail at the same time. As tensions rise, it becomes evident that Gillies has arranged for several ex-convicts to be on the train - all part of his plan to escape.
  • Quantum Leap: In "Honeymoon Express", Sam must save himself, while on his honeymoon, from his new bride's ex-husband. Also, Congress wants Sam to change history by stopping the U2 flight that was shot down over Russia in 1960.
  • On SCTV there was a parody sketch of Orient Express called "Death Takes No Holiday," featuring John Candy as Hercule Poirot uttering the immortal lines, "Someone abord zis train is a Murderer! — Perhaps even ze Train Itself ... IS A MURDERER!
  • Whodunnit? (UK): In "It's Quicker By Train", the Victim of the Week is poisoned in the dining car of an intercity train.


    Tabletop Games 
  • Call of Cthulhu supplements Fearful Passages ("The Iron Ghost" adventure) and Horror on the Orient Express both have train-based adventures.
  • Top Secret, adventure TS005 Operation: Orient Express. A set of espionage adventures that occur on the famous title train.
  • TORG had part of its "Relics of Power" adventure take place on a train. Sadly this setting was abandoned when the adventure was remade for the rereleased version, Eternity.
  • The Merc 2000 setting of Twilight: 2000 had an adventure called "Mess on the Orient Express", which involves the player characters having to find a stolen giant Buddha on the Orient Express.

    Video Games 
  • Like so much else, BoxxyQuest: The Gathering Storm has fun with this. In Chapter 6 (which references a similar chapter in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door), the heroes are excited for a luxury train trip, since it means taking a break from their quest, only for them to stumble over a murder victim the instant they climb aboard. Anonymous tries to bail out, and even after Catie guilt trips him into staying to help solve the mystery, he never stops acting really annoyed by the whole thing. And then subverted when it turns out the 'victim' was Faking the Dead purely as a joke.
    Anonymous: I know how this works, huh? I've seen the movies. That guy got killed, and one of the people on the train did it. It'll be up to us to solve the case before the train reaches GameFAQs in two days. That's stress I don't need right now.
  • The game Chase The Express/ Covert Ops Nuclear Dawn is sort of a clunky Metal Gear Follow the Leader set on a trans-European train that will launch a nuke when it reaches its destination - although unusually for this type of story, there are a few stages that take place on a different train running adjacent to the main one.
  • The 2018 digital edition of Clue offers a "Murder Express" theme in its season pass, letting the players find the correct suspect and weapon within a train platform and its neighboring amenities (such as a barber shop); the train engine and three of its attached cars are also considered "rooms".
  • A Hat in Time: These seem to be the entirety of the Conductor's creative output. All thrillers, all of them with/on trains. They still win awards year after year, however, so it's worked out well for him.
  • The Last Express. The Pre- World War 1 Orient Express setting gives it a very Christie feel and then it actually tries to use some of the same setting advantages that you might get in other media using this trope by having the game take place in real time.
  • Chapter 6 of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is a Breather Level that largely takes place on the luxuriant Excess Express. You get roped into solving a mystery that follows this formula during the three-day trip, and, except for a brief rest stop at an abandoned station, is totally devoid of actual fighting until the Traintop Boss Battle on the last day. It also averts the lack of security normally present in these stories—the train staff refuses to let Mario into restricted areas, let alone outside the train. The boss battle is on the traintop because the Smorgs had already captured everyone on the train except the conductor, leaving an unobstructed path out.
  • The first part of Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box is set on the Molentary Express, theough the mystery is more about the train's destination than the train itself.
  • The Ecliptic Express level in Resident Evil 0 has zombies (naturally) and a giant scorpion onboard.

  • Chapter 3 of Stand Still, Stay Silent takes place almost entirely on a train. A pretty badass one, but that doesn't stop a giant from attacking.

    Western Animation 
  • The Adventure Time episode "Mystery Train" plays it straight for the most part. ...but then subverts it at the last minute, by making the whole thing an elaborate birthday prank/staged mystery put together by Jake for Finn's birthday.
  • American Dad!: The episode "The Last Ride of the Dodge City Rambler" involves the Smith family taking a trip on an antique train, only for it to be hijacked by a gang that wants revenge against the train company.
  • Danger Mouse On The Orient Express takes place on said train, where DM and Penfold must retrieve a document that would allow Baron Greenback to raze all of Europe's tourist attractions and lure tourists to his (shudder!) museum of Barry Manilow record sleeves. It climaxes with the engineer and the fireman having deserted the train (reason: the episode was farcical and low-class) leaving DM and Penfold with the task of stopping the train before it crashes into the terminus in Paris.
  • The Dick Tracy Show: "The Casbah Express" is a train originating in Paris that is carrying a shipment of gold. Joe Jitsu is assigned to guard the gold from Sketch Paree and the Mole who covet the gold shipment.
  • The King of the Hill episode "Strangeness on a Train" has Peggy set up her birthday party on a disco-themed murder mystery play on a train. When her streak of unlucky birthdays leads to the mystery getting spoilednote , Hank tries to cheer her up, which leads to their having sex in the bathroom. Kahn discovers the "evidence" and starts a new mystery to try and figure out who it was, as Hank and Peggy desperately try to prevent it.
  • Looney Tunes:
  • A Miss Mallard Mystery: The episode "Express Train to Trouble" is set on the Nile Express, and involves the disappearance of a passenger after an Ancient Egyptian artifact is brought on board.
  • The Mr. Magoo cartoon "Magoo's Express", where he ends up in possession of an experimental explosive shaped like a cigar and is targeted by Eastern Bloc spies.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "MMMystery on the Friendship Express" is about an investigation into who ate the cake Pinkie Pie was guarding. Much spoofing of mystery tropes ensues.
  • The Ruby Gloom 2-parter "Last Train to Gloomsville" parodies just about every train-thriller cliche to the max.
  • Rugrats played around with this in "Murmur on the Ornery Express" with all the main characters (except the Carmichaels) going on a scenic train ride to a historic tourist town for Boris and Minka's second honeymoon, complete with a 1930s-style streamlined steam locomotive pulling the train. But as everyone else boards, a tall dark stranger in a Conspicuous Trenchcoat disguise boards the train as well, and then things begin to go wrong when after passing through a tunnel, Minka's diamond necklace is stolen, and Angelica's Cynthia doll and Chuckie's "Wawa" teddy bear are both presumably stolen as well, and Tommy and Chuckie suspect the stranger (whom they call the "Shadow Guy") of the crime. Eventually, it's found that Lulu's ex-boyfriend Dwayne had stolen the necklace, the tall dark stranger is really Jonathan who snuck on board to make sure Charlotte's work could get done faster, and Cynthia ended up under a seat in the babies' compartment after Angelica accidentally grabbed "Wawa" in the dark, thinking it was Cynthia.
  • The Thunderbirds Are Go episode "Heist Society". On an underwater hyper loop train, Lady Penelope and Parker are escorting Professor Moffat to a rendezvous with the Global Defence Force in Iceland in order to safely deliver a particle born from the Supreme Hadron Collider disaster - Centurium 21. However, the Hood is keen to get his hands on the particle and plots an elaborate robbery in order to steal it for himself. Thunderbirds 1, 2, and 4 are soon dispatched to not only rescue the trapped train and its passengers, but also attempt to foil the Hood's plan.
  • The Total Drama Action episode "Get a Clue". It is crime-solving time on set as the cast participates in three mystery-themed challenges. As one castmate starts to apply herself, another castmate continues to be fed up with them. As a result, these two find themselves butting heads quite often. To make matters worse, the host is found dead on a moving train, and the murderer seems to be amongst them.
  • Young Justice: In "Performance", Robin, Artemis, Superboy, Miss Martian, and Red Arrow go undercover as the Daring Dangers to discover the link between Haly's circus and stolen weapon technology. A large part of the action takes place on board the circus train.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Train Based Thriller


Madness Combat 6

"Very good! Now, catch me if you can, sucka!"

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

Example of:

Main / ThrillerOnTheExpress

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