An essayist, short story writer, and popular-fiction aficionado, Kevin Mims frequently contributes to this site. In this post, he reveals something he hasn’t alluded to before—his childhood love of model trains. Adult model-train enthusiasts were common in past generations, but as Kevin points out in this post, contemporary crime fiction (especially on TV) has created a cliche of the hobby as associated with potentially dangerous minds. I agree with Kevin that this is a lazy trope—the kind of thing all good writers should avoid. I hope the post will lead to a discussion of other lazy shortcuts common in our genre. —Janet Hutchings
Growing up, I always wished I had a model railroad. But I was one of six children, and my parents couldn’t afford such elaborate toys. So I never had one. My wife, a baby boomer like me, also wanted a train set as a child. But she was a girl, and thus such a gift was deemed inappropriate. One of my best friends, Don K., is another boomer who grew up coveting a model train set. He never got one either but, even at 70 years old, he still loves to visit model train expositions. I sometimes think you can divide all American baby boomers into two groups: those who had model train sets as a kid, and those who wanted one but never got it. I’ve worked in bookstores for much of my life. Every time I sold a book or magazine about model railroading, the purchaser seemed to belong to my own approximate age group. For most of the twentieth century, model railroading seemed to be a respectable, if somewhat eccentric, hobby for grown men to pursue. But in the twenty-first century, model railroads seem to have become a symbol of a dangerous fixation on the past, primarily among older white guys. This trend has become particularly prevalent on TV crime shows. For the last twenty years, lazy Hollywood screenwriters have turned a love for model train sets into a clichéd way of representing baby boomers with an unhealthy nostalgia for a bygone time.
In HBO’s The Sopranos, the character of Bobby Baccalieri Jr. (played by Steve Schirripa) is a late baby boomer (born around 1964), a mobster, a killer, and a model train enthusiast. The Sopranos is, among other things, a show about American men trying to deal with a world in which white, male privilege is rapidly giving way to greater roles for women and nonwhites. Bobby’s love of model trains seems to represent his desire to return to a simpler, more homogenous past. In the second to last episode of the series (spoiler alert!) Bobby is killed by members of a rival mob. Fittingly, he is shot dead in a hobby shop where he is checking out a model of a Blue Comet train set. Two gunmen open fire on him and he falls dead across a model train display. Symbolism doesn’t get any more heavy-handed than that. His refusal to evolve and his nostalgia for an earlier, less complicated America are directly related to his death. Just in case you needed another nudge in the ribs, the episode was titled The Blue Comet. It first aired in June of 2007.
Two years later, on the Showtime series Dexter, viewers were introduced to a character called Arthur Mitchell ( played by John Lithgow), a baby boomer (born 1949), a Christian, a family man, and a model-railroading enthusiast. Alas, Arthur is also a serial killer known as Trinity (the FBI believes his killing sprees always come in threes). Arthur’s life went bad in 1959, at age ten, when his older sister saw him spying on her in the shower. She slipped and cut herself and bled to death in front of him. His parents blamed him for the death. His childhood—and his family—both pretty much ended with the death of his sister. As an adult serial killer, only his model railroad set can take him back to the innocence of his early childhood, before his sister’s death destroyed everything he loved.
In the second season of HBO’s prestige TV series Big Little Lies, fabulously wealthy businesswoman Renata Klein (Laura Dern) learns that most of her assets have been seized by the government because her Boomer husband, Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling, born in 1962), has been arrested by the FBI for insider trading and stock manipulation. Gordon, it turns out, is a model train enthusiast. Renata is horrified when she discovers that Gordon’s expensive toy train set is one of the few family possessions that he has managed to shield from government seizure. She makes this discovery in episode two. But her anger over it continues to boil until (Spoiler Alert), in the final episode, in one of the climactic scenes of season two, she takes up a baseball bat and destroys his little toy village and the expensive model train that runs through it. Gordon managed to remain unnervingly calm throughout most of season two, despite the fact that both his wife and daughter are suffering great emotional distress as a result of his malfeasance. But seeing his beloved train set—symbol of a simpler, more male-friendly past—destroyed by a shrieking female is more than he can take. Finally, the horror of what he has done seems to be dawning on him, and he appears to understand what Bob Dylan meant when he wrote “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.”
Also in 2009, in an episode of Midsomer Murders titled “Small Mercies,” Olivia Colman (who would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the 2018 film The Favourite) played a mentally unstable woman whose life revolves around a miniature village with a model train set that runs through it. The episode was partially filmed at the Bekonscot Model Village and Railway, located in Beaconsfield, England. Naturally, Colman’s character, Bernice, ends up being a murderer, and the first of her victims is killed because Bernice discovered him desecrating the model railway village by having sex on the site of it. Bernice couldn’t stand the thought of such disrespectful behavior towards a model railway and miniature village. Bernice isn’t a baby boomer herself, but she’s engaged to marry a boomer named Edward Palfrey (played by Paul Bentall, born in 1948), and she appears to share his somewhat older, stodgier worldview.
More recently, in August of 2021, Netflix debuted a new 8-part thriller called Clickbait. In this series, when family man Nick Brewer (Adrian Grenier) is kidnapped and murdered, suspicion begins falling on the multicultural cast of characters who lived in his orbit: his fortyish wife (Betty Gabriel), her lover (Motell Gyn Foster), the older brother (Daniel Henshall) of a Millennial woman Nick was believed to be having an affair with, Nick’s Millennial co-worker (Ian Meadows). But in the end (spoiler alert!), it turns out that Nick wasn’t killed by any of these people. No, the killer turns out to be Ed Gleed (played by Wally Dunn, born 1960), a Baby Boomer introduced only in the final act of the drama and given little character development. About the only thing we ever learn about Ed is that he loves his model train set. And the model train set he loves isn’t incidental to the plot. The viewer is led to believe that if Wally had paid more attention to his marriage and less attention to his model trains, the tragedy of Nick Brewer’s death never would have occurred.
In the 1970s, when Hollywood wanted to signal to TV or movie viewers that a character might be unstable they often made him a disgruntled Vietnam War veteran. This made a little bit of sense. Plenty of veterans of that war suffered emotional and psychological scars from their service that made it difficult for them to reenter civilian life. But the stigmatizing of model railroaders seems completely misguided. For nearly as long as we have been married (43 years) my wife has been dragging me to various northern California model railroad shows and exhibitions. I have met and chatted with plenty of model railroad enthusiasts at these gatherings. And, yes, most of them have been baby boomers like myself. But I’ve never read anything about a connection between a love of model railroads and anti-social behavior. Mostly these guys seem like friendly, neighborly fellows. If I had to guess, I’d say that most of these hobbyists are probably pretty conservative. They have a love of the past that seems to echo William F. Buckley’s definition of a conservative as someone who stands athwart history yelling Stop! But evincing a fondness for the 1950s, the 1940s, or even the 1890s shouldn’t automatically get one labeled a sociopath. Plenty of boomers simply long for a time when life didn’t constantly move at the speed of sound. You can’t really stand athwart history, but you can stand athwart a model train set and bring a tiny version of an American small town to a halt if you so desire. Is that so bad?