George Orwell once wrote that it was usually in the most blissful circumstances – Sunday afternoons on the sofa, a belly full of roast dinner and a pipe of shag on the go – that the desire to read about murder took hold.
Exchange the sofa for a deckchair, the roast for fish and chips, add the slosh of waves and a bright sun overhead, and Orwell’s proposition goes some way to explaining the ongoing popularity of thrillers as beach reads. This summer, with the publication of Not Dead Yet (the eighth outing for Peter James’s Brighton gumshoe, Roy Grace) and Cathi Unsworth’s Weirdo, an occult murder mystery set in a fictional Norfolk resort in the 1980s, the deckchair detective has the added option of reading crime fiction with a coastal setting in situ.
Such books follow in the tradition of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and Patrick Hamilton’s The West Pier, and join more recent crime novels by Andrew Martin, set in Blackpool and Scarborough, and Peter Guttridge’s Brighton trilogy.
The seaside can claim to be the birthplace of the English detective novel. It was in between examining nautical malingerers and Senior Service retirees at his medical practice in Southsea, Portsmouth that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote “A Study in Scarlet” – the tale that in 1887 bequeathed Sherlock Holmes to the world. Nearly a quarter of a century later, in Torquay, a 20-year-old Agatha Christie, recovering from a bout of influenza and bored with eking out the hours at home assembling jigsaws, playing card games and fashioning small figures from bread dough, tried her hand at writing stories. Inspired by Conan Doyle, she created the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
Murder on the prom
Since the days of the Regency, when prostitutes and pickpockets worked the promenades, and smugglers the coves and bays, the seaside has had a seedy underbelly. Violence usually flourishes in places where large, anonymous crowds gather on hot (or miserably cold) days. A queue for the Ghost Train jumped. A jostled elbow at a seafront bar. An ill-timed suggestion of a nightcap in a hotel to somebody else’s wife. The wrong colour of shirt. It doesn’t take much to flip the English from restrained to being restrained by several officers of the law.
But with their pleasure-seeking patrons, transient populations and efficient international transport links, seaside resorts are rather fine places to commit murder, as Poirot himself points out in Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel, Evil Under the Sun – a book whose backdrop is an exclusive hotel on an island off the coast of Devon and where a bottle of fake tanning lotion plays a pivotal role in the plot.
Like the seaside holiday, the crime novel functions by dishing up reassuringly recognisable situations, stock figures and tropes. The predictable surprise is what is sought, with favourite authors, as much as trusted destinations, coming to be relied upon to deliver subtle variations on the same excitements over and over again. As Greene’s own seaside teenage hoodlum Pinkie Brown observed, “they are like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton”.
Travis Elborough is the author of “Wish You Were Here: England on Sea” (Sceptre, £14.99)