Through the long winter months and the interminable drizzle of a British spring, we look forward to our summer holidays. Whether they involve a flight to a far off destination or a quick drive to a homegrown seaside resort, those few days in July or August mark a pleasurable pause in the year, a moment for leaving domestic cares behind and ignoring work pressures for a bit. And if there’s an opportunity for lying about in the sun reading mystery stories, so much the better.
Holidays in detective fiction, though, tend not to be quite so relaxing. The likes of Hercule Poirot or Roderick Alleyn seemingly only have to check into a holiday resort for a corpse to show up on the beach, and then they’re right back in the role they have gone travelling to escape: that of sleuth.
Grab your bucket and spade because today, we’re investigating murder on holiday.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
It was about a month into the coronavirus lockdown in the UK that I began to notice a pattern in what I was reading. I’ve always got about six books on the go at a time, between the research I do for the podcast and other writing work that I’ve got on, but wherever I could choose what whodunnits to read, I was picking the ones where my favourite detectives were on holiday. I followed Harriet Vane once more on her English seaside walking tour in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase, I joined Roderick Alleyn on a trip to New Zealand in Ngaio Marsh’s Vintage Murder, and with Miss Marple I stayed once more At Bertram’s Hotel. I even found myself rifling through short story collections looking for miniature mysteries with holiday settings that I’d previously overlooked, and found several excellent ones featuring Hercule Poirot including “Triangle at Rhodes” and “The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan”.
It’s not hard to work out why I’ve suddenly become so keen on travel-based mysteries, since I am now spending so much time staying in the same place. Depending on where you are in the world, an actual holiday may or may not be a possibility in the near future, but you can always travel vicariously like this, tucking yourself into Miss Marple’s carpet bag as she sets off from St Mary Mead for an adventure.
Indeed, once I started actively looking for holiday or travel based mystery novels from the golden age period, I began to see them everywhere. Some of the genre’s most famous titles fall into this category of course, like Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile, but there are also plenty of others that are focused around a holiday in some way that I hadn’t previously been quite so aware of, like Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers, say, or Spinsters in Jeopardy by Ngaio Marsh. In fact, it began to feel like my favourite detectives were more often on the move than they were at home.
This prompted me to think about why this might be the case. Why are holidays so popular in detective fiction? The most obvious answer seems to me to be just because they’re fun to read. A devotee like me might have been willing to read thousands of pages about Bunter going food shopping and Miss Marple choosing table linens, but when these books were first published their writers were trying to excite people, not make them fall asleep. I’m surely not the first person to travel vicariously through the pages of a mystery novel. Although foreign holidays were becoming more accessible to ordinary people in the early twentieth century, luxurious overseas travel of the kind described in some bestselling golden age novels would have been out of reach of most of the people who read them. The 1930s reading public enjoyed finding out what the meals were like on the Orient Express as much as we do in 2020, I suspect.
These books also reflected the zeitgeist. Holidays, in the sense of a reasonably long and planned break from work for leisure or travel, was still a relatively new concept for Britain’s working classes. Of course, the aristocracy and very wealthy had been taking grand tours around Europe and the globe for centuries, but that was very much the exception. It wasn’t until the second half of the nineteenth century, once the industrial revolution had completely altered the workforce, that there was some movement towards enshrining a right to paid time off work. The Bank Holidays Act was passed in 1871, and that established roughly four days a year when a worker would be paid but not have to work. A byproduct of this was an explosion in the popularity of British seaside resorts like Brighton and Blackpool, where people from the surrounding areas could easily go for summer day trips and amusements.
Around 1900, the growing trade union movement in Britain began to make paid leave one of its campaigning priorities. Some employers did give their workers leave, but it was rarely paid at their usual rate, if at all, meaning that even a few days’ break could set the household finances back for weeks or months, and there was nothing to spend on any travel.
Newspaper reports about “struggling housewives” trying to manage strained finances and committee reports continued throughout the 1910s and 1920s, and finally in 1938 the Holidays With Pay was passed by Parliament. This piece of legislation gave workers on minimum wages set by their trade boards the right one week of paid leave a year. It was a significant step forward, even though unions had been pushing for two weeks. The law also didn’t cover all workers and because of the outbreak of the Second World War the next year it wasn’t completely implemented.
However, as an indication of the country’s direction of travel on this issue, it’s a useful point of reference. Through the 1920s and 30s, working class readers were increasingly thinking about and longing for holidays of the kinds they saw pictured in magazines and novels, and so detective fiction reflected that. Commercial providers were already designing holiday experiences for the masses, though. The first Butlins holiday camp opened in Skegness in 1936 and the package holidays offered by companies like Thomas Cook were growing rapidly in popularity. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about delving more deeply into travel based mysteries is how they reflect the changes in the ways people went on holiday over the period when the various books were published. The shooting trip the Wimsey family is on during Clouds of Witness, published in 1926, feels like a very typical aristocratic holiday that could have happened at any time in the previous hundred years, but Hercule Poirot’s journey home from France in 1935’s Death in the Clouds is extremely modish, since he travels via a commercial airliner.
A lot of these travel based mysteries reflect their authors’ real holidays, of course. Agatha Christie was an extremely well travelled woman by any definition, but especially so given the time in which she lived. In her teens she had spent time in Egypt with her mother, and then in 1922, she and her then husband Archie were part of a round the world trip organised to promote the British Empire Exhibition. They spent ten months away from Britain, visiting places including South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada on the way. Travel was also her self prescribed remedy after her disappearance in 1926 and subsequent divorce: she went first to the Canary Islands in 1927, and then in 1928 she took her first Orient Express journey to Istanbul on the first leg of a tour of the Middle East. It was on that trip that she met her second husband, the archeologist Max Mallowan, and after they married in 1930 she often accompanied him to digs in the region. Of course, this is how she gathered the material for Murder on the Orient Express, but novels like Appointment with Death, which is set in Petra, Jordan, and Murder in Mesopotamia, based on an archeological dig in Iraq, were also based on her experiences during this time.
The same can be said for the other queens of crime. Ngaio Marsh travelled fairly regularly between her native New Zealand and Britain, and so does her recurring sleuth Roderick Alleyn. She even wrote one book, Singing in the Shrouds, about a murder mystery among the passengers on a liner travelling from London to South Africa, a journey she had made herself — I talked more about this book in the All at Sea episode of the podcast. Marsh’s novel Spinsters in Jeopardy is also about a holiday, although this time Alleyn and his family are having a break in the south of France. The murder set up in this book is very dramatic, with the Alleyns seeing what looks like a stabbing happening in the illuminated window of a medieval castle as they travel past it on a train. According to Marsh biographer Margaret Lewis, this castle was based on one that the author’s wealthy New Zealand friends the Rhodes had rented for a holiday in 1949.
It’s much easier to write about a place when you’ve actually been there, of course. A detective will have a much more convincing holiday if their creator has actually been on such a trip themselves. In the late 1920s, Dorothy L. Sayers and her husband Mac Fleming visited Galloway in Scotland and stayed at the Anwoth Hotel in Gatehouse of Fleet. This is where she centred the artistic community that features so heavily in 1931’s Five Red Herrings, and obviously found her stay so helpful that the novel is actually dedicated to Joe Dignam, the hotel proprietor. She says in the preface that “All the places are real places, all the trains are real trains and all the landscapes are correct, except that I have run up a few new houses here and there.” For a Scottish holiday that involves a lot of detailed stuff about train times, you can’t really do better.
After the break: wasn’t it lucky that Hercule Poirot was on the train?
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One theory about why detective fiction was so popular between the two world wars has to do with the general exhaustion and ennui caused by global events. I’ve talked about this on previous episodes — the idea put forward by the scholar Alison Light is that whodunnits are a kind of “convalescent literature”, ideal for reading while recovering from trauma. Since travel, often to a place with good air like a seaside or mountain resort, was a regular prescription by late nineteenth century doctors, it follows that mysteries set in these places would fit in well with this idea of crime fiction as a tool for recovery and escape.
Some writers took this even further, writing books where their detectives are holidays for their own convalescence. The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey is a good example of this, with her sleuth Inspector Alan Grant taking a sleeper train to Scotland to recuperate after a breakdown. Although it was published long after the actual golden age years — it came out in 1952 — Tey’s crime writing remained fairly steeped in the prevalent traditions of the 1920s and 30s. Grant is planning a relaxing break staying with friends and fishing, but when he gets off the train at his destination, one of the other passengers is found to be dead. Even then, Grant resists the temptation to jump straight back into work and continues with his plans, only to find that he’s picked up the dead man’s newspaper and there are some cryptic clues written on it. From that point on, the detective can’t leave the case alone, even though he’s not officially engaged on it. Tey’s novel is as much a meditation on the isolating effects of illness as it is a whodunnit, and Grant’s travels around the Highlands are key to unravelling both strands of the book.
Beyond stories of literal convalescence like this, I think there’s something to be said for cracking open a relaxing murder mystery while on holiday. I’m personally a bit prone seeing holidays as an opportunity for self improvement, when I’ll read all the serious and important books that I never get round to in real life. Of course, that never happens, and I just end up reading whatever battered Agatha Christie is on the B&B free shelf, or in some desperate situations, buying new crime novels in a local bookshop. It’s only recently that I’ve realised this and stopped dragging hefty tomes away with me, instead loading up on golden age classics I haven’t read before. If possible, it’s always fun to read travel mysteries that are set in the place you are yourself visiting — I’ve never been to Egypt, but if I do go one day, you know I’ll be rereading Death on the Nile, for instance. There was a bit of a vogue for this during the golden age, I think, and lots of authors played up to it as you can see in titles like Calamity in Kent by John Rowland and The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude.
Those are the external societal factors that encouraged writers to set their murder mysteries on holiday. But there are also some compelling reasons from within the genre’s conventions for why a holiday or travel setting is a good option for a whodunnit.
Firstly, a holiday can often provide the closed circle that a good mystery plot requires. Sometimes that’s because the means of travel creates physical limitations on the number of suspects. Trains were of course a popular choice for holidaymakers and crime writers alike, as Agatha Christie demonstrated in novels like Murder on the Orient Express and The Mystery of the Blue Train, but boats work too. Death in the Clouds, which uses an aeroplane, is an enjoyable addition to this list.
Hotels and resorts are also an excellent way of defining the limits of a story, meaning that a detective can get to know all the possible suspects in a social setting. Plenty of books work on this basis — Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery and At Bertram’s Hotel, for instance, or Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase, in which Harriet Vane stays at the excellently named Hotel Resplendent in a small English seaside town after finding a body on the coast nearby. Death in Clairvoyance by Josephine Bell has a neat twist on this, with the murder taking place at a masked ball at a seaside hotel. Bell’s regular detective David Wintringham and his wife are on holiday and decide to attend the party, at which one of six identiacaly costumed clowns is killed. The ball essentially makes a circle within a closed circle, creating even more of a challenge for the sleuth.
When the hotel or resort in question is in another country, there are additional non physical barriers that keep the circle small — language being one obvious one, but also cultural differences that keep tourists and locals separate. This manifests itself interestingly in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, which is set on an archaeological dig in Iraq. Hercule Poirot is travelling through the country, and is called in by the local British authorities when a murder among the archaeologists’ party proves too sensitive for a police investigation. In this one, there are both physical restrictions — the entire expedition lives in the same closed compound — and also divisions between those who speak Arabic and those who don’t.
In situations like this, the famed parochialism of the English tourist really comes to the fore. Even the wealthiest of travellers are in a somewhat precarious situation when away from home, removed from their usual resources and allies. They’re at the mercy of the weather, their hosts, and the local authorities to smooth the way for them. This also can have the helpful effect of quickly placing the detective in a position of trust among the suspects — as a fellow guest but also a known sleuth, he represents the hope of a quick and just resolution without the need to engage with what might be a baffling or slow moving local investigation. Tour de Force by Christianna Brand exhibits this particular trope well, with Inspector Cockrill forced to abandon his own holiday to take over the murder investigation on a small Mediterranean island when the local police aren’t up to the job.
When in Rome by Ngaio Marsh, which was published in 1970 but exhibits many of the traits she began with in the golden age, is a classic holiday mystery. Roderick Alleyn happens to be in Italy on another case, so he’s called in when a tour guide vanishes and a body turns up in an ancient sarcophagus. Marsh put a lot of effort into portraying the tourist experience in Rome accurately, and also in delineating the different tensions and characters within the tour group. This is a great device for a mystery, because even more than in a hotel, the tour group throws together people who would never normally meet, which is a staple of a good murder mystery plot. Unlikely friendships can form, but old animosities can also arise. Like all the best tropes, this one has its basis in reality. We will all have experienced the difficulties of travelling in a group where not everybody gets along, so all a crime writer has to do is dial up that tension, and you’ve got the perfect setting for a murder.
Although I’ve mostly been focusing on summer holiday so far, just because there are more books about them, winter travel can work well for this as well. Crossed Skis, a recently republished book by Carol Carnac, is a great example of this. Carnac, listeners might remember, is the alternate pseudonym of E.C.R. Lorac, who I talked about in the last episode. This book is about a group of people on an Alpine skiing holiday together, in which all the travellers end up as suspects for a murder that happened back in London. Dead Men Don’t Ski by Patricia Moyes has a not dissimilar premise, although with the added benefit that the hotel where the main characters stay can only be reached by one ski lift, providing a excellently isolated closed circle. The short story “The Erymanthian Boar” from Agatha Christie’s The Labours of Hercules features this too, but takes the isolation one step further when the funicular up to the mountain top hotel where Poirot is staying breaks, marooning the guests in icy conditions until it can be fixed. And of course, something similar happens in Murder on the Orient Express, when the train gets stuck in a snowbank and the passengers are thus isolated while the crime is investigated.
You’ll notice, by the way, that quite a few of these books include a detective who just happens to be on holiday somewhere that a crime occurs. Sometimes this is woven into the plot — Hercule Poirot in particular is plagued by criminals who incorporate his presence into their schemes in attempts to turn his notoriety as a sleuth to their own advantage. Peril at End House is a very good example of this, although I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the plot for those who haven’t read it yet. More often, though, the author lays out this coincidence with a knowing wink to the reader, and we all accept that suspending disbelief on this point is necessary for murder mysteries to work. Perhaps the best example of this is Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, in which she turns the coincidence into an element of the mystery itself. The murderer had no idea that the house where the victim died had been sold to famous sleuthing duo Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and that they would turn up on their wedding night to move in for their honeymoon. Without their presence, Sayers hints strongly, the crime might have gone unsolved.
Although detectives rarely manage to stay off duty or incognito long when on holiday, false identities for suspects, victims and murderers are very common in holiday murder mysteries. Away from home, especially overseas, it’s easy for a character to represent themselves to their fellow holidaymakers as a different person. There are no casual acquaintances hanging around to destroy the illusion, and very little likelihood that a chance encounter will give the game away. New friends made while on holiday will be inclined to take people at face value. It’s also much harder for investigators to verify who people really are when far away from police records and resources.
Detective novelists experimented extensively with this trope — there are dozens of novels where all sorts of holidaymakers turn out to be not who they initially said they were. Indeed, Dorothy L Sayers pushes this trope to the limit in the Wimsey short story “The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face”, where a holidaying victim’s face is mutilated, seemingly as a way of preventing identification. As a metaphor for the anonymity of travel, it can’t really be beaten.
This question of identity comes up a lot in Agatha Christie, of course, with one of her classic holiday mysteries playing with the problem of who’s who. Evil Under the Sun from 1941 sees Hercule Poirot enjoying a break in a hotel in Devon, where he meets a whole cast of fellow guests. He remarks early on that all of the sunbathing bodies laid out on the beach look the same, and that remark sets the tone for the whole investigation. This book is actually based on an earlier short story by Christie called “Triangle at Rhodes”, which first appeared in 1936. The plots have a lot in common, but the short story is obviously set abroad, which adds an atmosphere of strangeness and isolation that the slightly cosier Devon hotel doesn’t really have. Both, though, are superb examples of how travel allows characters to refashion themselves for the audience of their fellow holiday makers.
It’s clear that as a frequent traveller herself, this was something that Christie had thought about a lot. The first Miss Marple volume, The Thirteen Problems, collects stories published in the late 1920s, and two of them deal with the fluid identities of travellers abroad. “The Blood Stained Pavement” and “The Companion” are, in my opinion, the most chilling stories in the book, mostly because of the callous and calculated way their culprits assume and then shed different personas for their evil ends.
I can’t help wondering whether Christie ever caught a fellow traveller out in the act of changing their identity on a trip, or if she just imagined it as a possibility. Either way, it was an idea she returned to again and again in her fiction. But whether or not you get to travel this year, you can live vicariously through the experiences of Christie, Sayers and others and explore the destinations they wrote about in the murder mysteries on your bookshelves. Maybe you’ll go to the south of France, or the Highlands of Scotland, or a resort on a Swiss mountain. Wherever you choose, I’m sure it’ll be a nice break from everyday life, just like a real trip would be.
And then once you can go on holiday again, you’ll be fully equipped to play the sleuth — in between the sandcastles and the sunbathing, that is.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton and edited by Euan McAleece. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/murderonholiday including links to all the books mentioned. There are annotated transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts
If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get access to the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community. This month, we’re reading The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie together, and there’s still time to get involved in the discussion in the private members’ forum. You can join now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
I’ll be back on 5 August with another episode.