Has anyone ever seen the 1969 comedy, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, about the misadventures of a group of tourists on a 19-day trip through Europe? It certainly put me off the concept of conducted tours, and it reminded me that no matter how hard you may try, even the best-laid plans for a vacation may go astray.
For example, I myself prefer holidays in the city: a comfortable hotel, museums and shopping, fine dining, nightly sojourns to the theatre or a nightclub. But many people like to escape city life for the sun-drenched pleasures of a tropical island or a coastal getaway. So a few years ago, I decided to switch things up and try one of those “sounds of the sea” vacations. A friend and I went to stay at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, a large resort that is still popular despite being past its prime. We spent beaucoup bucks to snag ocean view rooms, and I went to bed the first night expecting to drift off to sleep as the waves lapped upon the shore.
Imagine my chagrin when I awoke at 2am to horrific noise and to eerie lights piercing through the drapes. I stumbled to the picture window, drew back the curtain, and beheld hundreds of invading soldiers trudging out of the waters onto the shore and tramping up the beach toward me. This was clearly a mass invasion by enemy troops, and I was on the front line! Of course, it turned out to be the Navy SEALS conducting their June exercises. Whose bright idea it was to put a Navy base –and airstrip – right next to a luxury hotel I will never know. Suffice it to say that, for my next holiday, I returned to the relative quiet and safety of New York City!
There’s something about the sounds of the ocean outside your window that lulls some people into a sense of calm – the perfect time, when our suspicions are allayed, for a cold-blooded killer to strike. For someone like me, the monotonous sounds of the ocean may themselves do the trick and cause one to snap!
Which brings me to the subject of the moment, which is that The Tuesday Night Bloggers are changing things up. We have decided to intersperse our monthly authorial tributes with occasional “Theme” months! As a teacher, I have started the annual countdown to summer vacation (19 workdays and counting), so I’m quite excited that our first topic concerns travel, vacations and modes of transport. (Get a load of the snazzy logo, courtesy of fellow conspirator Bev Hankins, at the top! Thanks, Bev!)
A vacation is what you take to get away from the stresses of life, but of course in mysteries, people seldom travel without an ulterior motive or they bring their stresses with them. The enforced holiday that the Boynton family takes to Petra in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death is merely a ruse to allow their horrid matriarch to seek out new victims of her sadistic pleasure. The same holds true when Simeon Lee gathers his family for Yuletide cheer at the old homestead in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. In fact, show me a holiday gathering in any Golden Age country manse that does not end in murder, and I’ll introduce you to some bitterly disappointed readers.
Within the space of fourteen years, two of my favorite crime Queens penned classic mysteries about resort living (and dying). I thought it would be fun to examine Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun (1941) and Christianna Brand’s Tour de Force (1955). I have yet to write about Brand, who has always been one of my favorite mystery writers, so I’m excited that one of her novels fits into my first post about this theme.
In Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot, who tried and failed to retire from criminal investigation and grow vegetable marrows in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, has decides to take a well-deserved break from the detective grind, having solved no less than fourteen major murders in the past ten years (and those are only the recorded ones!). He journeys to a delightfully secluded spot on the coast of Devon called Smugglers’ Island with a luxurious inn named the Jolly Roger Hotel. Here, Poirot hopes to evade for a while the evil schemes of murderers and thieves. Yeah, right, let’s see how well that goes.
Agatha Christie paints a vivid picture of the detective in this British Shangri-la:
“Hercule Poirot, resplendent in a white duck suit, with a Panama hat tilted over his eyes, his moustaches magnificently befurled, lay back in an improved type of deck-chair and surveyed the bathing beach. A series of terraces led down to it from the hotel. On the beach itself were floats, lilos, rubber and canvas boats, balls and rubber toys. There were a long springboard and three rafts at varying distances from the shore. Of the bathers, some were in the sea, some were lying stretched out in the sun, and some were anointing themselves carefully with oil.”
Chatting with his fellow vacationers Mr. and Mrs. Gardener (she talkative, he taciturn) and spinster Emily Brewster, “a tough athletic woman with grizzled hair and a pleasant weatherbeaten face,” Poirot learns that he is not the only “very important person” on the island. The noted dress designer Rosamond Darnley is ensconced at the hotel. Even more notable is the presence of the actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, whose very presence has a marked effect on everyone around her:
“She was tall and slender. She wore a simple backless white bathing dress and every inch of her exposed body was tanned a beautiful even shade of bronze. She was as perfect as a stature. Her hair was a rich flaming auburn curling richly and intimately into her neck. Her face had that slight hardness which is seen when thirty years have come and gone, but the whole effect of her was one of youth – of superb and triumphant vitality. . . There was that about her which made every other woman on the beach seem faded and insignificant. And with equal inevitability, the eye of every male present was drawn and riveted on her.”
Arlena has a definite ulterior motive in coming to Smugglers’ Island, and it goes by the name of Patrick Redfern. Patrick is every inch a hunk: “Lean, bronzed, with broad shoulders and narrow thighs, there was about him a kind of infectious enjoyment and gaiety – a native simplicity that endeared him to all women and most men.” Clearly, Arlena and Patrick are a match made in heaven. How unfortunate that both of them are married, Arlena to the stalwart Captain Kenneth Marshall, and Patrick to a pale mouse named Christine. But something as trivial as marriage has never stopped Arlena, and she and Patrick pursue their dalliance flagrantly, kindling angry flames not only under their spouses but also angering Kenneth’s troubled teenaged daughter Linda, the aforementioned Miss Darnley, who has kept the torch burning for Captain Marshall for years, a self-made tycoon named Horace Blatt, who may or may not have taken the name Smugglers’ Island to heart, and the local Reverend Stephen Lane who, upon catching a glimpse of Arlena mutters with ecclesiastical fervor: “Such women are a menace – “
I know that on vacation I tend to be much more observant, and of course Hercule Poirot, even on a bad day, is more observant than I am. He is a people watcher by profession, and as he observes all the sun-tanned bodies “arranged on slabs – like butchers’ meat” in a row on the beach, his distaste gives way to concern over Arlena’s effect on those around her. Reverend Lane says of Arlena, “That woman is evil through and through.” Poirot has his doubts, but he agrees that the presence of Evil is all around them, and that Arlena is its locus.
The tourists in Christianna Brand’s Tour de Force are not travelling in the lap of luxury. Instead, they have booked a “Conducted Tour of Italy,” and Brand amusingly describes the perils of group travel:
“They were very much like the members of any other conducted tour: thirty of them – gay ones, jolly ones, vulgar ones; refined ones looking down upon the jolly ones and hoping they wouldn’t whip out funny hats and shame them at the advertised ‘first-class hotels’; inexperienced ones who never could make out whether you called this place Mill-an or Mil-ann, experienced ones who phased them all by calling it Milarno . . . robust ones who drank water out of taps and confounded the experienced ones by not going down with bouts of dysentery, anxious ones who refused all shellfish, raw fruit and unbottled beverages and went down with dysentery before they had even started . . . “
We find some some celebrities on this tour as well, including Mr. Cecil, the fabulous dress designer (Brand’s fans previously met him in Death in High Heels), Louvaine Barker, known to her friends as “Louli,” only twenty-nine and already a well-known author, and Brand’s sleuth Inspector Cockrill, or “Cockie,” a gruff eccentric who eyes his fellow travellers “with ever-increasing gloom.”
Despite her dyed red hair and abundance of make-up, Louli is a natural and delightful creature who endears herself to Mr. Cecil and even manages to warm Cockie’s heart. More importantly, she befriends Leo Rodd, a handsome musician who is bitterly depressed over the recent loss of his arm and who rejects the sympathies of everyone, including his elegant wife Helen. Also worthy of our notice are Mr. Fernando, who runs the tour, Miss Trapp, whose wealth attracts Mr. Fernando, and Vanda Lane, a Plain Jane with hidden depths who harbors a secret passion for Leo Rodd. There is no “nexus of evil” to be found here – Christianna Brand tends to populate her novels with more likable, complex types. But, sure enough, murder rears its ugly head before very long. And when it does – and it becomes clear that the police force of the island of San Juan el Pirata is both corrupt and ineffectual – it is up to Cockie to sort through the secrets of his fellow travelers and unmask the killer.
Travel brings out something different in all of us, including a willingness to take some chances we avoid in real life. I tend to become much more open about connecting with strangers when I’m abroad. Years ago, when I flew to New York City, I would befriend whoever I stood on line with for half-price tickets. I had a few nice meals with strangers, including, of all people, Tom Brokaw’s brother-in-law. How convenient that most of the characters in Christie’s novel have some prior relationship or, in the case of Arlena Marshall, a strong conviction based on prior observation. In Tour de Force, most – but not all (that would be telling) – of these people are strangers, and that creates a more dramatic relationship arc since they know their time together is limited.
Both novels share some of the same elements around the crime schemes, and of course, it is hard to discuss these without going into spoiler territory. (So be warned!) For me, the machinations of the killer in Christie’s book are clever as can be, but for some reason this novel has never appealed to me in the way that Death on the Nile or some of Christie’s other travel books have. The author has always had fun with the romantic triangle or quadrangle, creating numerous variations on how this central romantic drama can be played out as a crime. Comparing Evil to Nile with a group of people who have read both would make for a fascinating conversation as there are some parallels. At the end, the solution forces us to look at the victim in a slightly different way, but as much as I am struck by the killer’s ingenuity at the reveal, I have never been emotionally moved by it.
Tour de Force, on the other hand, has a solution that is so audacious that many people think it is ridiculous. There’s a certain amount of this in many wonderful mysteries of the Golden Age. But I think that Brand lays her traps quite fairly. Like Christie, she threads her early chapters with marvelous observations on the social niceties (and not-so-niceties) of travellers that turn out to be important clues. And if one puts down this book and thinks it highly unlikely that the killer could have gotten away with what they did, I was willing to suspend disbelief. What’s more, despite the fact that Tour de Force is a heck of a lot funnier than Evil Under the Sun, it also packs an emotional punch that I have remembered for many years after I first read it. We may or may not feel pity for Arlena Marshall after we learn about the plot against her. At the end of Tour de Force, our sorrow for the fate of the victim is made so much greater, and our pity extends even to the killer. Somehow, in the guise of a classic puzzle with expert clueing in the grand tradition, Christianna Brand has done something that Agatha Christie, in this novel at least, has not: she makes us care.