With this month’s focus being on holiday and travel themed mystery novels I got to thinking about why writers might use such a theme. Is it just to dazzle the reader with exoticism and provide a means of escapism? Or is there something more to it? After a lot of head scratching and pondering here are 8 possible reasons I have come up with…
Reason No. 1 – Cultural Zeitgeist
The start and end dates for the Golden Age of detective fiction are often hotly debated, but one thing which is for certain is the popularity of such novels during the 1930s. Golden Age mystery novels during this decade were often set abroad, on holidays or around travelling. This was the decade after all which saw the publication of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous travel themed mystery novels, The Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and in fact around half of Christie’s novels in this decade (not including The Floating Admiral (1931) or her Westmacott novels) were set on holidays, trips or involved travelling. And I think one of the reasons for Christie amongst others to theme their mystery novels this way, was to reflect and respond to societal, cultural and technological changes, as travel became cheaper and quicker and more workers got paid holidays. For example the number of employees in the UK receiving paid holidays by the end of the 1930s had decupled from figures taken at the start of the 1920s, which was no doubt influenced by the Holidays Pay Act of 1938. The 1930s also saw the opening of the first Butlins holiday camp in 1937 and the first Youth Hostel Association hostel was opened in 1930. In some ways perhaps, because of the increase in holiday makers, holiday or travel themed mysteries may have been more relatable to readers and more inclusive, in contrast to country house mysteries, where the likelihood of the average reader being invited to such a place was low.
Reason No. 2 – Enclosed Spaces and Impossible Crimes
One of the biggest advantages for a writer setting their mystery novel on a mode of transport such as a boat, plane or train is that they can become the equivalent of a country house: an enclosed space and a closed set of suspects, which are intrinsic features of the Golden Age detective novel. Examples include Murder in the Submarine Zone (1940) by Carter Dickson, Robin Forsythe’s The Pleasure Cruise Mystery (1933) and Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (1937). A closed world setting allows the writer to concentrate on a small cast of characters meaning individual and group psychology can be brought to the forefront of the story. Moreover, in such a confined space this psychology often becomes aggressive and fragmented as characters’ nerves begin to buckle under the strain of knowing there is a killer amongst them. The enclosed space of a boat or train can also lend itself to the impossible crime subgenre, as these forms of transport can cut off the killer’s escape route and for the killer at least it is an environment which is hard to control and there are a host of potential witnesses to implicate them. In some ways I think Death in the Clouds (1935) by Christie can be considered an impossible crime novel, not in physical terms as anyone on the plane could walk up to Madame Giselle and kill her, but in terms of not being seen. In such a small space filled with other passengers and staff, killing someone without being seen seems unlikely, yet in this novel human assumptions are played on to achieve this impossibility.
Reason No. 3 – Old Acquaintances and Strangers
Another big advantage which came to mind was that holidays, trips and travelling provide a plausible way for writers to bring a disparate set of characters together, from all sorts of backgrounds and nationalities. Moreover, a mixed group of people who don’t all know each, is a perfect setting for an aspiring murderer, as a criminal can easily lie about themselves and reinvent a new identity. This is something several fictional sleuths have picked up on such as Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery (1964) who says ‘one really knows so little about the people one meets when one is travelling… one only knows, doesn’t one, what they choose to tell you about themselves.’ Furthermore, Inspector Cockrill in Tour De Force (1955) also says that ‘People aren’t what they seem [on holiday]… No give-away relatives, no childhood friends, no birth certificates, no diplomas, no marriage lines…’ Additionally, once a murder has been committed it is hard for the sleuth to then find out information about the suspects and to uncover the links between them, a concept pushed to the maximum in Christie’s The Murder on the Orient Express. However, there are also some Golden Age detective novels where the murder is catalysed by the killer unexpectedly meeting someone from their past whilst travelling. These unplanned acquaintances invariably know a dark secret about the killer, so the murderer accordingly bumps them off before they have a chance to share what they know.
Reason No. 4 – Satirising the West
Alison Light (1991) in Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars writes that ‘Christie uses abroad as a more effective means of concentrating her plots and isolating her characters’ (Light, 1991: 91). In particular it can be argued that Christie often singles out her Western (invariably English and American) suspects and satirises or pokes fun at their attitudes and conventions. By placing these characters into a foreign setting, it is much easier to do this as the alien environment can make the traits being undermined appear anarchic, grotesque or absurd much more effectively and they can be contrasted with their surroundings. A mild example of this can be found in Appointment with Death (1938) where the killer initially gets away with their crime because they disguised themselves as a native worker. Witnesses are not able to give much information about this figure, embodying the stereotype that to Western holidaymakers “foreigners” all look the same. Another instance can be found in the short story ‘The Pearl of Price’ (1934) featuring Parker Pyne, which is set in Petra and unsurprisingly involves the theft of a pearl. Caleb P. Blundell (an American magnate) and Colonel Dubosc are set up as figures to be derogated. The latter spouts the idea that ‘honesty… is a nuance. In different countries it means different things. An Arab is not ashamed of stealing. He is not ashamed of lying. With him it is from whom he steals or to whom he lies that matters.’ Blundell compounds this libel with the notion that this ‘shows the superiority of the West over the East.’ Yet when the thief is caught unsurprisingly they are a respectable and well known Western figure. In such stories the reader soon realises such characters are not reliable or informed witnesses. These sorts of characters tend to be figures of fun and at times can be seen as out of date symbols of Britain’s imperial past. In light of Britain’s declining influence on the world stage, such characters can also be read as reinforcing erroneous stereotypes in order to relieve their anxieties over Britain’s diminished global power, holding on to the belief that they are socially, intellectually and morally superior. Furthermore, Christie sometimes actually shows such characters as the reverse of this, highlighting their ignorance. For example when the colonel overlooks Poirot in The Murder on the Orient Express, ‘Poirot, reading the English mind correctly, knew that he had said to himself, ‘Only some damned foreigner.’ Yet it would be that ‘foreigner’ that unravels the subsequent murder and often in his cases Poirot plays on the way some English people underestimate people from other nationalities. Another example is in 4:50 from Paddington (1957) when Harold Crackenthorpe discusses his experience of being involved in a murder case:
‘Murder takes a little more getting used to by some people than it may in your case,’ said Harold acidly. ‘I dare say murders are two a penny in Majorca and –’
‘Ibiza, not Majorca.’ ‘It’s the same thing.’
‘Not at all – it’s quite a different island.’
Reason No. 5 – Same but Different
It goes without saying really that setting a mystery novel on holiday creates variety, as there are only so many country house murders you can read before you need a change. However, a change of setting does not mean a change of setup, as arguably the formula, writers such as Christie used, could be transferred from their non-travel themed novels to their travel themed ones. For example similar structures can be applied such as the parallel I mentioned earlier between the enclosed space of a train for example and the enclosed space of a snow bound country house. Moreover, similar motivations for murder also crop up such as greed and fear of discovery. Yet, because of the change of scene it perhaps feels like we are being given something different.
Reason No. 6 – Adding to the Drama
Golden Age mystery writers have also used the holiday/ foreign country settings of their novels to heighten the tension and add to the atmosphere, such as making suspects or soon to be victims fearful of an unknowable malignant force. This is epitomised in Christie’s short story ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ (1923), where a killer uses a tomb’s curse as a way of covering up his crimes. Additionally in his work, Todd Downing incorporates Mexican superstitions and beliefs. In both of these examples, the foreign setting and culture is used to play upon the minds of the travellers, in the same way a gothic or spooky castle can play upon a character’s imagination. Familiar things become frightening and uncanny. For example in the Christie story, a mask of Anubis ends up terrifying Captain Hastings: ‘A shadowy figure was moving amidst the tents. It was no human one: I recognised distinctly the dog-headed figure I had seen carved on the walls of the tomb. My blood froze.’ An effect these atmospherics have is that they emphasise and contrast with the rationality of the detective, who knows that whatever is going on must have human origins.
Reason No. 7 – Learning Opportunity
When protagonists go on journeys or trips, the adventures they subsequently have often leave a mark on their character and cause them to change in some way. Honing in on the work of Christie, it could be added that such protagonists are often female and that their encounters with mystery and murder alter them. Three key examples would be The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), They Came to Baghdad (1951) and Destination Unknown (1954). In the first two it can be argued that the female protagonists, Anne and Victoria respectively, learn who the right man for them is and also learn something about the dangers of first impressions. Although I think it is Hilary Craven who is changed the most by her experiences in Destination Unknown. She begins the novel planning her suicide in Morocco after her daughter dies and her husband leaves her. Yet by the end of the book having gone through some pretty bizarre and stressful times she has found the will to live again and a new love interest to boot. Such character developments/ changes are much trickier to write about when there is no physical journey to run alongside the journey the protagonist takes metaphorically.
Reason No. 8 – Added Extras
Golden Age detective novels often have a setting specific theme and information about this subject is sometimes termed excelsior. A good example of this is Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors (1934), a detective novel which includes a lot of information on campanology. Setting a detective novel abroad then can help writers to intertwine their chosen theme or excelsior. For example, Todd Downing set many of his mystery novels in Mexico, a setting which allowed him to plausibly and effectively include information on Mexican culture. Examples can also be found in Christie’s canon as her experiences of archaeology find their way into Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), where death strikes at an archaeological dig.
Over to You
As always let me know you think by commenting below and do add any further suggestions for reasons why Golden Age detective novelists may have set so many of their novels on holidays and trips.
Brilliant post, Kate! I really liked Number Four. By extension, travel can pick up on the hypocrisy of the traveler. Emily Brent is shocked that Captain Lombard would dismiss the murder of twenty-one African natives. “Black or white, they are our brothers,” she cries, yet she hates the British servant class and coldly drives her own pregnant maid to suicide. Dickens is loaded with characters like this. My favorite is Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, who raises money for the natives of Boorioboola-Gha but starves her own children.
I do think one of the most interesting factors is how, in a travel mystery, unless you have a huge family traveling together like the Boyntons, you have to deal with “the stranger factor” where a good deal of the mystery may revolve around motive. That really gets us out of the tired cliche of the old dark house and the reading of the will.
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Glad you liked it. Hypocrisy of the traveller is a pertinent point (with added Dickens comparison!) and would work well within the general theme of satirising or critiquing the West.
Impressive amount of research on this one, Kate. Those holiday pay stats and the history of holiday camps. Love reading stuff like that!
A corollary to #8 is that the reader is the one undergoing the learning experience. I think that Freeman Wills Crofts’ and Rufus King’s shipboard mysteries are excellent examples of teaching people about the culture of ships and the mechanics of ships. And of course Crofts’ better known train mysteries teach us over here all about the intricacies of the UK passenger railway system which seems a lot more arcane than our very short lived US passenger train service. I say short lived because of Amtrak — still amazingly in operation, but barely so — has never been the same since the mid 1970s. It’s so mismanaged and insulting to travelers that it doesn’t resemble anything remotely like a transportation service.
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Yes you make a good point about the reader getting the opportunity to learn as well, though with me it depends on what the subject to learn is. I was quite interested in the info Downing gives on Mexican culture in his books for example, but when it comes to the mechanics of train engines my attention does tend to wander. I haven’t had a chance to read any of Rufus King’s work yet, but he sounds an interesting writer.
Got nothing intelligent to add – geat post, thoroughly exhaustive and well-reasoned; very nicely done indeed.
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You’re too kind! Next week’s post for TNB in comparison is a much more facetious and jocular piece.
Fantastic post as always, Kate. I do think numbers two and five go together–authors looking for different ways to offer the closed space generally obtained by having a house party snowbound could easily transpose the action to ships or planes….or inaccessible islands. Moving your characters to new places does give it a whole new feel.
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Thanks Bev! And I definitely agree with you on those two reasons being interconnected.
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A very thorough look at the subject – I was idly thinking of the features that make holidays so splendid a setting, for a possible post, but I shall think of something else as you have written the perfect text!
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haha yes you do have to dive in first with these sorts of posts.
A tremendous amount of Golden Age knowledge underpins this post. So impressive! I’ve linked it on my blog and author page on Facebook as I’m sure my readers will find it fascinating too.
Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for the linking.
[…] month when the Tuesday Night Bloggers looked at Holidays and Excursions I did a post on why writers might want to set their novels either on a holiday or within a mode of […]
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