David Baldacci is known for his murder mysteries, which have earned him a well-deserved reputation and a huge audience. His novels have been published in 35 languages, and there are more than 40 million copies in print. The Christmas Train is a significant departure from his more accustomed genre. Unfortunately, this train has left the track.
Tom Langdon is a journalist, currently living in Washington, D.C., who has embarked on a cross-country train trip to meet his putative girl friend in Los Angeles. Langdon carries too much extra baggage even for a train's baggage car.
He cannot fly inside the U.S. due to a blow-up with a TSA agent, resulting in community service and a two-year ban from all commercial flights. His actions did earn him the cheers of the other passengers. He used to cover wars and conflicts across the world and won a couple of Pulitzers, but he is now writing fluff pieces for domestic publications, such as The Ladies Home Journal. Langdon has been conducting a bicoastal affair with Leila Gibson, a failed actress who has become rich and famous doing voice-overs for cartoons. He still occasionally thinks of Eleanor, a fellow journalist who left him suddenly in Tel Aviv. He has unresolved issues with his father who was kin to Mark Twain. Now, per his father's request, he wants to duplicate Twain's transcontinental train trip and write a story. And, there is too much more to go into here.
This story has more twists and turns than an O. Henry short story, but without the skill and grace exhibited in "The Gift of the Magi." Everyone on the train, in the best tradition of Christmas stories, is in search of something which will soothe their troubled souls and bring peace to them in this most magical of seasons, the time when even the animals are said to bow down and pray at midnight.
The plot is just too fantastical. For example, a major winter storm figures heavily in the plot. When we are first introduced to it, the storm is not noted by any meteorologists, an unlikely event in this time of sophisticated observations of the weather from coast to coast. Yet, this storms sweeps down at just the perfect time. Another example is the world-renown director, Max Powers, who shares the train with his entourage. Max is a Santa figure who seems to know who's been naughty and nice. He sets things in motion which help make this such a sweet story, but they are just too, too unlikely.
Much of the back story for the characters hangs together as filler rather than information which moves the story along. The same is true with the wealth of information about the trains. The engines pulling the Capital Limited out of D.C. "were General Electric P-42s, each weighing a staggering 268,000 pounds, cranking sixteen cylinders and packing 4,250 horse power." I guess such details add verisimilitude and purpose given Langdon's role as a journalist, but they add up to more padding.
Mark Twain once apologized at the end of a long letter, saying that if he had had more time he would have made the letter shorter. Perhaps with more time Baldacci could have turned this rambling novel into a tight short story. This edition concludes with a four-page story, "Waiting for Santa," which has far more substance and contains more real Christmas emotion than The Christmas Train.
Thomas Wolfe famously wrote that you can't go home again. Nevertheless, we are all homing pigeons at Christmas seeking to find the familiar and nestle in the bosom of our families. Baldacci does achieve that end, but he doesn't get us there in such a manner that we'd want to take the journey again with him.