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Must Read Voraciously to Improve Style: The Travel Murder Trope

Illustration by Loveday Pride

In case I haven’t mentioned it already, last week I departed for the first leg of my year abroad (jealous yet?). So before I left the UK, I read Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, carefully filing away as many details of the ‘travel murder trope’ as possible so that I – dedicated journalist that I am – could reveal to you all the truth behind it based on my own travels. At surface level, the attraction and success of such a trope may seem obvious: a group of seeming strangers thrown together by the hand of fate and trapped with each other at close quarters. The intrigue is inevitable as various details of the travellers’ lives are revealed, and the closed-off setting acts as the perfect controlled environment for the author to wreak havoc at their characters’ expense. But does this trope that has inspired so many of the best murder mysteries have any grounding in reality?

I must first preface this article by reassuring you that nothing happened on my journey worthy of the same morbid fascination Christie has the power to engender in her readers. I neither had to use my ‘little grey cells’ as an interim Poirot, nor did any fellow traveller vex me so much that I assumed the role of murderer. Nonetheless, I was surprised at the similarities between the people I was surrounded by at Heathrow and on my flight to Moscow, and the characters from Death on the Nile.

No matter who you’re travelling with, I can guarantee you that at one point, the people around you will become inherently irritating. Maybe it has something to do with the stress of keeping important documents safe or the subliminal fear of embarking on a journey with unpredictable events. Maybe their overthinking is rubbing off on you or, best of all, maybe they breathed a little too loudly near you. In a high-pressure situation, the ‘quirks’ of people’s personalities take centre stage. So, what if we substituted the tension and suspicion of a gruesome murder on a river liner with some changes the pandemic has made to travelling? Here are some travellers you are bound to meet…

The loud rulebreakers are a staple of general life and travelling alike. In Death on the Nile, this is exemplified in the extravagant, over-opinionated, easily-carried-away-by-her-imagination, alcoholic romance novelist. This lady makes a point of broadcasting her theories and injecting drama into any account she shares. My parallel was two Gen-Z girls in mum jeans and baggy sweaters. With their masks rebelliously placed under their noses, they spent the whole security check queue complaining about the behaviour of immature boys on Snapchat. While I agree that you both deserve better than Callum and Brody (as Christie wisely writes, ‘men are incomprehensible!’), we shouldn’t be able to hear every sordid detail through the muffling effects of your mask. These girls and the romance novelist share a love for dark eye makeup and fingers weighed down by thousands of rings.

The cocksure latecomer can be spotted by their long strides, perpetually unruffled appearance, and mask of practised nonchalance. In Death on the Nile, I confer this title on the arrogant aristocratic son, so determined to cast off his noble ties in favour of Marxist theory that he doesn’t realise he is a champagne socialist. He gets the iconic line ‘I’ve deliberately offered marriage to this female – against all my principles’ which seems to me a combination of Mr Collins’s awkward vocabulary with Mr Darcy’s desultory first proposal to Elizabeth (see Pride and Prejudice). I would believe my equivalent capable of the same: a tall guy with a man bun and headphones who sauntered to the gate 40 minutes after everyone else had arrived and spent the whole time staring off into the middle distance. While Christie’s baron-boy hides his signet ring in his cabin, my travelling compatriot made a point of readjusting his silver bird skull ring every time he walked down the plane cabin’s aisle like some low-budget version of Lucius Malfoy.

Jokes aside, Agatha Christie undoubtedly has a talent for pinpointing human nature and the different personalities of people. She also effortlessly depicts the way people journeying together act in captivating and engaging writing. Travel makes you more observant, and not just out of vigilance. Even before the murder took place, the travellers spend most of their time speculating about those around them based on their appearances or the way they carry themselves. Indeed, despite being on vacation, Poirot himself can’t help but notice certain things in the behaviour and mannerisms of the society he finds himself in. It is, perhaps, the most likeable character in the book who sums up this voyeuristic fascination the best: ‘I’m very matey really – people interest me enormously. All the different types.’

And if there was hostility before in a teenager’s eyes at an airport as they spot another teen their age with a cooler appearance, or envy in a toddler’s eyes as they catch sight of a toy they wish they could be playing with, the tensions and silent judgement of one traveller for another seems to have only increased as a result of the pandemic. Now you have furtive eyes peering at you from over a mask. You can’t quite decipher the intention or the feeling in that gaze. Their mask has a valve and mine doesn’t. They don’t have any antibacterial hand-gel. Does anyone here have COVID and not know about it? Was that someone coughing?

The natural wariness we as humans have for one another lends itself very well to murder tropes. But perhaps the travel murder trope is not one at all, but rather a consequence of the extremes of human nature when in an isolated setting. If there’s one thing that any reader of a murder mystery can be certain of, it’s that no matter how spontaneous it seems, the murder is always premeditated. There is always some hidden link, some hidden motivation that binds the murderer and the murdered together. Something that can’t be discovered by passing observation alone.

Next time you’re travelling somewhere, even if it’s just on the Tube, make a point of studying your fellow passengers. An elderly person in search of a free seat. A small boy drowning under three heavy bags containing his sports kit and schoolwork. A girl whose posture stiffens as a man sits down beside her. Be aware of those around you and don’t let your reservation for someone you don’t know prevent you from offering your help if it’s needed. Heed Poirot’s advice:

Do not open your heart to evil… It will enter in and make its home within you, and after a little while it will no longer be possible to drive it out.