At first sight, a book which collects classic British crime stories set on the continent of Europe may seem an unlikely enterprise. It is often assumed that detective novelists like Agatha Christie, who established their reputations during the Golden Age of Murder between the world wars, tended to be rather narrow and parochial in their outlook. Colin Watson said in his amusing book Snobbery with Violence (1971) that their books’ central appeal to readers was a ‘familiar homeliness’. He argued that the typical setting for their mysteries was ‘a cross between a village and a commuters’ dormitory in the South of England…It would have a well-attended church, an inn with reasonable accommodation for itinerant detective-inspectors…and shops—including a chemist’s where weed-killer and hair-dye might conveniently be bought.’
Although writers did often set their stories against such a background, a great many—and Christie herself was a prominent example—were much more adventurous than Watson suggested. The truth is that crime writers had long understood that foreign settings fascinated their readers. People who had little or no prospect of ever being able to afford to travel extensively took pleasure in experiencing something of the appeal of exotic locales while devouring a good mystery. This was so even in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. For example, B.C. Skottowe’s intriguing and unusual mystery Sudden Death (1886) is set in part in Homburg, while A.E.W. Mason created a popular French detective, Inspector Hanaud, who first appeared in At the Villa Rose (1910), and made his final bow as late as 1946 in The House in Lordship Lane, the only book in the series set in England.
The crime writing career of Freeman Wills Crofts got off to a cracking start with the publication in 1920 of his first novel, The Cask. The story opens with a startling discovery at a London dock, but Inspector Burnley’s investigation soon takes him across the Channel, and much of the book details his collaboration with his French counterpart Lefarge as the police forces of London and Paris strive to bring a ruthless murderer to justice. Christie’s debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, appeared in the same year as The Cask; it introduced Hercule Poirot, a retired Belgian policeman with a genius for detection. At first the book made less of an impression than Crofts’ novel, although eventually it earned a large and devoted readership. Poirot returned in The Murder on the Links (1923), in which a millionaire’s desperate plea causes the detective to travel to France, where almost the whole of the story is set. Unfortunately, he arrives too late to prevent the man’s murder, and the local police officer, Giraud, treats the elderly Belgian with condescension. Crofts’ interest lay in describing how meticulous police work enabled justice to be done, whereas Christie’s focus was on concocting a baffling whodunit mystery to be solved with the aid of Poirot’s genius. Even though neither author specialised in atmospherics, in each book, the French background enhanced the appeal of a cleverly conceived mystery.
Countless Golden Age detective novels and short stories made good use of settings in continental Europe. They included an excellent story by Christopher Bush about a serial killer called ‘Marius’ who is determined to keep one step ahead of the police. In The Perfect Murder Case (1929), the early scenes are set in London, but the action switches to France, and a dramatic confrontation at the climax of the novel takes place on a French island. Sir Basil Thomson, whose varied career included a spell as head of the CID, employed continental settings in several of his books about Richardson, a policeman who starts out as a constable and enjoys an astonishingly rapid rise to the top of Scotland Yard; The Corpse of the Dead Diplomat (1935), also known as Richardson Goes Abroad, is set almost entirely in France, and the reliable Sergeant Cooper makes good use of his linguistic skills in the course of his investigation.
Sometimes, real life events on the Continent complicated attempts by authors to capture foreign settings authentically. Freeman Wills Crofts, having undertaken a Mediterranean cruise himself, hit on the idea of writing a book which featured a very similar cruise. By the time Found Floating (1937) saw the light of day, however, circumstances had changed: the Spanish Civil War had begun. Crofts’ ship’s itinerary had included a stop at Cadiz, and he had to include a prefatory note explaining that the trip taken in the story by William Carrington and his family also pre-dated the conflict.
Christie, a seasoned traveller, whose second husband, Max Mallowan, was an archaeologist whom she met in the Middle East, continued to make economical yet telling use of overseas locations. They supplied the background for many of her most impressive novels, including Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and Death on the Nile (1937), as well as one or two of her worst, notably The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) and a thriller written late in her career, Passenger to Frankfurt (1970). Even Miss Marple, so closely associated with village life, found herself on the other side of the Atlantic in A Caribbean Mystery (1964). It is fair to say that the character types in Christie’s books set overseas scarcely vary from those set in England, but it is a mistake to see this solely as a sign of her limitations as a writer; rather, it reflects a key element in the enduring global appeal of her work—she recognised that human nature is much the same all the world over.
After the Second World War, overseas travel became more affordable, and many more people took the opportunity to holiday abroad. This trend was reflected in crime fiction. Writers such as John Bude, whose first four books were set in attractive English locations, namely Cornwall, the Lake District, the Sussex Downs, and Cheltenham, moved with the times by venturing overseas on trips that combined enjoyable holidays with research for his books; his post-war titles included Murder on Montparnasse (1949), Death on the Riviera (1952), and A Telegram from Le Touquet (1956).
In more recent times, many more books by foreign writers have been translated into English, and ‘Scandi-Noir’ has become especially popular. But British writers have continued to produce notable work set on the continent—examples include the Aurelio Zen books written by the late Michael Dibdin and set in Italy, Martin Walker’s series about the French cop Bruno, and Robert Wilson’s novels set in Spain and Portugal.
As the world grows smaller, more and more crime fans are seizing the chance to see for themselves the scenes of crime in their favourite continental mysteries, whether written by Britons or local authors. This collection of stories about crime on the Continent, which includes contributions from some of the genre’s greatest names as well as several who are much less renowned, may suggest a few more destinations for an enjoyable visit.