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This month's Jerry Dowlen column looks at Paula Hawkins

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Paula Hawkins – The Girl on the Train


It must be the dream of many writers to see their debut book at the top of the sales chart. In the closing weeks of 2016 Paula Hawkins is registering a ‘win double’: her crime thriller story The Girl on the Train (Transworld, 2015) has been listed as the nation’s best-selling fiction book; meanwhile at cinemas throughout the country, the film version is filling seats and returning excellent box-office receipts.


That said, The Girl on the Train isn’t exactly a debut novel: its author (born in Zimbabwe) had suffered four unsuccessful earlier experiences of writing and publishing a novel before hitting the jackpot with her first try under her new pen name.  People have opined that the critical success factor of her first (fifth) novel is its close proximity in name and storyline to Gillian Flynn’s ground-breaking and blockbuster best-selling phenomenon Gone Girl (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012).


Cleverly marketed with a look-alike front cover, The Girl on the Train certainly shares with Gone Girl the central theme that a girl (a wife) is missing. The police are on the trail and they are deeply suspicious of the husband. The Girl on the Train shares also the narrative technique of switching back and forth between storytellers: the husband and wife provide alternate narrative in Gone Girl; three separate female characters offer their stories and viewpoints in The Girl on the Train.


So, yes … The Girl on the Train draws upon Gone Girl to evident extent … but in terms of the railway being integral to her cleverly-drafted plot I will venture the suggestion that Paula Hawkins has followed in the tracks of other authors that have centered the railway in their train of thought! 


Beware of the Trains … From a Railway Carriage


Beware of the Trains is the title of a book of classic crime fiction short stories (1953) authored by Edmund Crispin whose real name was Bruce Montgomery. We might argue of Rachel, the central protagonist in The Girl on the Train, that if she would only heed Edmund Crispin’s advice she would not make the injudicious train journeys that lead her into confusion and peril.


But perhaps the obsessive Rachel is caught in the grip of a fascination that a much older and famous author has owned up to? In his book of classic poems for children you can find Robert Louis Stevenson speaking surely for many railway passengers when he describes the thrill of looking out through the window of a train and giving his imagination full rein. His poem From a Railway Carriage (1885) includes these exciting, race-along lines:


Faster than fairies, faster than witches,

Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;

And charging along like troops in a battle,

            All through the meadows the horses and cattle:

All of the sights of the hill and the plain

Fly as thick as driving rain …


Rachel’s morning train into London habitually stops at a red signal beside a row of houses whose back gardens and back windows can be duly peered into. There are reasons why those particular houses are especially familiar and interesting to Rachel …


The 4.50 from Paddington


And so, when Rachel espies one morning – or thinks that she espies – a surprising and thought-provoking scene from the window of her stationary train at its usual red signal, her destination suddenly becomes trouble and distress.


It is easy, superficially at least, to pair Rachel’s spy-work with that of the elderly railway passenger Elspeth McGillicuddy in Agatha Christie’s classic crime novel The 4.50 from Paddington(1957). Two trains momentarily run beside each other on parallel lines and Mrs McGillicuddy fancies that she sees on the other train a woman passenger being attacked and maybe murdered.


Mrs McGillicuddy struggles to find anyone that is willing to believe her story, until the intrepid Miss Marple lends her support. For Rachel in The Girl on the Train the struggle for credibility is as much for the reader as for the depressive and divorced protagonist herself. For, given the knowledge that Rachel is addicted to booze and often becomes drunk and disorderly, how far can we, the readers, trust anything that she tells us? Should we give bigger credence to her co-narrators Anna and Megan from their respective viewpoints of current wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, and neighbour? Or will we find that their testimonies also are flawed? If we want to understand how this psychological thriller story has become a global bestseller we might conclude that through the skill and gentle urging of Paula Hawkins’s writing, we care about Rachel despite her many faults. And we are kept increasingly on tenterhooks to know: will Rachel prove to be the heroine of the story, or the anti-heroine?  


The Train named Corruption


“Before I knew what they were about they had me off the 9.20 train from Harrow and on to the train named Corruption.”


I rate that as one of the best opening paragraphs that I have ever read in a crime fiction novel! It comes from A Coffin for the Canary – author Gwendoline Butler (1974). Straight away the reader is enticed and pitched into a beguiling mystery in which the central character Olivia makes a fateful train journey that takes her to the edge – or beyond the edge? – of hysteria.


As with the unreliable Rachel it is difficult for us – the reader – to decide how far we can trust Olivia’s narrative and whether Olivia can separate fact from fantasy in her disorientated mind. In each of the stories The Girl on the Train and A Coffin for the Canary there comes a critical moment when Rachel and Olivia get the strongest impression that they have witnessed or have taken part in a moment of dramatic violence. But, frustratingly and worryingly, their memories have gone blank and they cannot specify the detail.


When Rachel agitates over her ‘blackout’, and investigates whether hypnosis can be relied upon to recapture the detail of her ‘lost hours’, we the readers can posit that she simply had passed out in one of her frequent alcoholic stupors. But with Olivia there is no ready explanation for the reader to seize on. How can Olivia convince herself, or the police, that a man could be alive, then dead, then stiff, all in a short space of time? Is her life suddenly a film that is out of synch? I won’t risk a plot spoiler but I will confide to you that alcohol consumption is not the cause of Olivia’s nightmare. When the surprising explanation is eventually revealed, the reader will find that it shouldn’t have been a surprise at all, but of course, the masterful Gwendoline Butler had tucked away the clues so cleverly and subtly!


Each a glimpse and gone for ever


The aforesaid Robert Louis Stevenson poem ends with these lines:


Here is a cart run away in the road

Lumping along with man and load;

And here is a mill and there is a river:

Each a glimpse and gone for ever!


On the 12th July 2013, should Rachel – The Girl on the Train – have allowed her glimpse from the train to go away for ever? For the sake of her safety and her sanity, definitely yes, she should! – but then Paula Hawkins could never have written a bestselling story that the Independent on Sunday newspaper has hailed as “A cleverly crafted piece of modern suburban noir.”


Jerry Dowlen

November 2016


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

H G Wells

In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn

Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986

Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...


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