Originally published as “The Phantom Train” in This Week, August 31, 1952, and appearing in QBI as “Magic Dept.: Snowball in July,” this is a barely plausible Queen tale.
Basically, witness for the prosecution has to be escorted from Montreal to New York via train, the “Snowball.” Police will escort the witness from the train at secret Station C, where the train is due at 10:18. The on-time train leaves Station A on time, due to leave Station B at 10:12. By 10:22, there is no train. Quick contact with Station B affirms the train was on time. Ellery and crew determine the train has been stopped somewhere between Stations B & C. A check of the tracks determines there is no train between the two stations. They travel the route twice. Then Ellery determines the train must be somewhere between Stations A & B. Sure enough, the Station B stationmaster had lied, and they discover a shoot-out in progress at the stopped train.
So, the train had to have been stopped before 10:12. Let’s say, at 10:08. Fourteen minutes later, it is determined to be late. Add another two minutes for telegraph communication, the 12 minutes to travel back and forth on the tracks, and then another ten minutes to find the train. That adds up to 38 minutes, at least, between the initial assault on the train and the arrival of the cavalry. While I have no personal experience with train hold-ups, this seems like an awful long time for the gangsters to shoot and kill their prey and anyone else in their way.
Then there is the case of the lying stationmaster. Ellery suggests he was bribed to lie. How much money would have to exchange hands for the stationmaster, who must have known the lie would be discovered (how could it not?), to risk jail time for being an accessory to murder?
As Sergeant Velie tells the Queens in this story, “You got to do better than that, my masters.”
There is a similar story in the 1970s TV series “Banacek,” in which an expensive experimental auto disappears — from the middle of a train which never stopped on its route! The solution is very different, though.