Eventually, I gave up on taking the Odyssey abroad and began packing Agatha Christie novels. Photo: Flickr/ Creative Commons 2.0

The case for only taking books you really want to read on holiday

How to solve the mystery of holiday reading? Make like Poirot and stay true to your real self
July 12, 2019

Packing to go on a summer holiday is a special kind of fantasy. No matter the destination, selecting the possessions to take on the trip is a way of deciding who to be on this break from real life. Who among us hasn’t slipped the slim volume of poetry and the running tights into the suitcase, choosing to believe that even though they never get touched at home, somehow on holiday we will become the kind of person who reads blank verse in bed and knocks out 5km before breakfast?

The books we choose to pack are key to this. High on too many “summer reading” lists, for years I would weigh down my bags with wholesome, worthy tomes I hadn’t got round to reading in the 20 minutes between getting into bed on a wintery weeknight and falling asleep. I was convinced that my holiday was the time when I would finally become someone who could get into Dryden’s translation of The Aeneid, or zip through the latest well-reviewed novel.

Of course, this never happened. My real holiday reading preferences were moulded by what could be found on the shelf at the bed and breakfast. The Dryden would never make it out of the suitcase because instead I was deep in a dogeared Agatha Christie. I found that I gravitated towards the titles where the detective is themselves on holiday. There was something very appealing in reading about a sleuth’s attempt to masquerade as a relaxed, easy-going individual, who is then forced to reassume their own character in order to solve the case.

I wasn’t the only one, it seems, who couldn’t pull off the trick of escaping from everyday life. Eventually, after rereading Murder on the Orient Express on the third trip in a row, I had to be honest with myself. If I was only going to read detective fiction on holiday, I should at least equip myself properly. I haunted eBay and the British Library’s gift shop full of reissued classics before departure to stock up. Now, whenever I travel, my suitcase is pleasingly full of alibis, weapons, clues and red herrings.

The escapist qualities of a good vintage murder mystery are well documented. Britain’s golden age of detective fiction dawned in the early 1920s and continued until the onset of the Second World War, although its influence lasted much longer, and indeed may be resonating anew in our troubled times. Authors like Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell and more turned out dozens of titles during that era, so eager was the public for whodunnits.

There’s a near-bloodless quality to the violence in crime fiction from that time which makes it very easy to read. The victim is dispensed with quickly and cleanly, so that the reader can move swiftly on to the pleasures of the puzzle. The structure of these stories is reassuring too: good triumphs over evil and order prevails over chaos. It’s very comforting.

Holiday mysteries were extremely popular during this period, perhaps because even then that is when they were often being read. The writers were inspired by their own -travels and readers enjoyed descriptions of more exotic or unusual locations. Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express after her many trips on that storied train to visit her husband’s archeological digs in the Middle East. Sayers sent her sleuth Peter Wimsey on a fishing holiday to Galloway in 1931’s The Five Red Herrings after spending time in an artists’ colony there. Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn travels to New Zealand several times because the author lived between Christchurch and the UK.

That’s not all, though. While most of us attempt to adopt a new persona on holiday as a route to self-improvement—I will be calmer, kinder, fitter, and more reflective, I would tell myself—it’s also a handy device for a character with something to hide. Christie’s Evil Under the Sun offers a perfect example of this, with many of the guests at an exclusive hotel on the Devon coast masquerading as someone else. When stretched out in the Sun with a shady hat over the face, Poirot observes, all sunbathers look awfully similar.

Holidays are a break from the usual routine too, allowing a detective story’s characters to behave in an unusual or unexpected fashion that is less obvious to the reader. This applies particularly in the Sayers short story “The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face,” which appears in the new classic holiday mystery anthology Murder in Midsummer. Infidelity or murder are missed and misinterpreted by the police because of the transient existence of the holidaymaker. His real self is difficult to pin down.

My favourites, though, are the ones where the detective is pulled from their holiday role with plenty of sham reluctance, secretly delighted be back in the harness. Sherlock Holmes, sent away to convalesce on the Cornish coast, can’t wait to crack on in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”; Poirot attempts to offer fatherly advice only in Death on the Nile but finds the solution anyway; and best of all in Busman’s Honeymoon, Sayers gives Wimsey and Harriet Vane “a love story with detective interruptions,” as if they could function any other way. It’s not so easy to put our true selves aside just like that—they have a habit of showing up regardless. Something we might do well to remember when packing the holiday case.

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. Her book is “The Way to the Sea” (Granta)