These days I’m not much of a traveler; it generally takes a business commitment to get me to leave home. It’s not that I don’t like being in new—and even exotic—places. I do. It’s just that getting there is no longer any fun at all. The romance has all but gone out of the transit part of travel.
A few years ago I saw David Suchet as Poirot in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. How wonderfully it recreates the sense of adventure I used to associate with trains. In it, the director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits says to Hercule Poirot that a train “lends itself to romance, my friend. All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days, these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their separate ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.”
Of course, that train ride of Poirot’s was supposed to have taken place in the 1930s. But for at least a couple of decades after that, travel, especially aboard trains and ships, continued to have an aura of romance: people dressed for a trip if it involved a public conveyance, even a bus, let alone luxurious transport like the Orient Express. For most people, the journey was considered an event, not simply a means of getting from A to B. I saw a remnant of that about a decade ago when I took an overnight train from New York to Georgia. In my car there happened to be a number of elderly African-Americans, all dressed rather formally compared to the younger travelers in the car, and all conveying, by the courtesy of their gestures and remarks, a sense of pleasure in and attentiveness to their fellow passengers and the journey itself. You could imagine such a group forming the cast in a Golden Age mystery.
“Romance” in the wide sense in which Christie uses it in that passage from Murder on the Orient Express is a key component in many mysteries. The sense of possibility that comes from the newness of people, situations, and places can be, in itself, an engine for suspense. The reader comes to such a story expecting something unusual to happen, and maybe that makes the suspense writer’s job just a little bit easier. I think my interest in travel mysteries has to do with there being so few opportunities to find that kind of romance in the real world anymore. Most real-world travelers these days are hooked up to smart phones or tablets, or in some other way shut off in their own self-contained worlds, rather than attuned to the people around them—and to be honest, I’m no exception.
My trip to Long Beach in November, for the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, served to remind me, however, that there’s sometimes a bit of intrigue and magic to be found even in contemporary travel.
Long Beach, I discovered, is the current home of the Queen Mary, one of the greatest of the transatlantic passenger ships of the nineteen thirties through the sixties. She’s slightly dilapidated now, as I discovered in my very brief visit aboard her, though she’s currently operated as a hotel and museum. But even though the ship could use a bit of sprucing up, there’s no way to miss how glamorous it must have been to take passage on her. Her size alone was enough to inspire my awe. Add to all of that that the ship is reputed to be haunted—ghost tours are one of the attractions—and you’ve got a perfect setting for a story of mystery, intrigue, or the supernatural. And in fact, in the ship’s heyday, several mystery writers incorporated this classic passenger ship into their fiction. Perhaps the most notable of these writers was Jack Finney, who, incidentally, got his start in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1946 with the short story “The Widow’s Walk.” Finney is perhaps most famous for his time-travel novel Time and Again, but his novel employing the Queen Mary, Assault on a Queen, was made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra.
After my visit to the Queen Mary, freshly infused with a sense of the grand adventure travel must have been back then, I made my way to LAX for a red-eye flight, expecting that the sundry irritations of contemporary travel would soon erase that pleasant daydream. I was not mistaken. Boarding a plane has become a lengthy and bizarre ritual in which not one’s social class exactly, but one’s “preferred status,” determines the order of boarding and guarantees a claim to the inadequate overhead luggage space. I mention this because it led to a minor incident with a surprising denouement. Ahead of me in the last boarding class was a young man who could possibly have been Middle Eastern. He spoke little English and seemed slightly anxious—a mood that became greatly pronounced when, on his reaching the door to the plane, a steward blocked the way and informed all of us that there was no space left for carry-on luggage and that all remaining bags would be tagged and transferred to the luggage hold. The young man refused to surrender his bag, arguing with the steward and holding up the rest of the line. I didn’t see how that finally played out as I was eventually waved through to my seat. But a few minutes later the young man appeared on the plane and took the seat directly across the aisle from mine. Despite the disruption, it looked as if we’d depart on time—until the steward came back and informed the young man that the captain wanted to speak to him. Apparently the captain was satisfied they weren’t dealing with someone dangerous, and preparations for departure continued—until an announcement was made that fuel had spilled on the runway and we’d all have to get off the plane.
I won’t bore you with the confusion surrounding our long wait in what was becoming the middle of the night. Suffice it to say that another plane in another terminal was eventually found for us and we were allowed to reclaim our carry-ons—none of which had yet been put in the luggage hold. Not hesitating to push and shove his way through the crowd, the young man who’d been so reluctant to relinquish his bag made it first to the new terminal, where he’d be sure, even in the fifth boarding class, to get the thing on board this time.
Again, I was not far behind him in line, and now his behavior was even more unsettling. Leaving his bag at the head of the line, he moved a few yards away and stood fidgeting and looking around him. The terminal was almost empty except for our flight by this time—around 1:30 in the morning. There was no sign that boarding was to begin any time soon. As I observed the man with the bag, I wondered if anyone else had an eye on him.
It was at this point that, in the near silence of the late-night terminal, there came the sound of a violin. And everyone seemed to turn as one. A passenger at the end of one of the lines had apparently opened his carry-on—a violin case—and begun a medley of classical pieces. Balm to his fellow passengers, and no one seemed to feel it more than the man with the bag, who entirely abandoned his luggage and moved a good thirty feet away to climb up onto a luggage trolley where he could watch the musician play. He listened for quite a while—we all did—until boarding was finally announced. I knew as soon as I saw him flock to the source of the music that the man with the bag was simply another tired and frustrated traveler. But it could have ended a different way—it could have made material for a mystery story. And that violin player? He added an element of romance that I hadn’t at all expected to encounter; when he finally came into view, filing past our line to board the plane, we could see that he looked more like a teenage rapper—leather jacket and cap on backwards—than a classical violinist. As Christie said, ”people of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages . . . [who] cannot get away from each other . . . ” Put them together and it can make for some great surprises. —Janet Hutchings