by Jessica Fellowes
The Golden Age of detective fiction, the era of classic murder mystery novels, is defined as those written in the 1920s and 1930s, which saw the advent of authors such as Agatha Christie, G.K.Chesterton, Georgette Heyer, Dorothy L.Sayers, and many others. It is a heady period in history, sitting between two world wars and with extraordinary advances in medicine, communications, women’s rights, and travel. Not to mention the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, the abdication of King Edward VIII in Britain, rising hemlines, female aviators, and jazz. You name it, it was going on.
This is why it has long been a fascination of mine, one which I have translated into my work, with books on the real-life inspirations behind the television series Downton Abbey (created by my uncle, Julian Fellowes) and my own novels The Mitford Murders. The latest in the series features a murder that takes place on a cruise ship, the classic locale for a ‘closed door’ Golden Age mystery.
Cruise ships were seen as the vessels of ultimate luxury, particularly the transatlantic liners. In spite of their grandeur, they were popular in the between-the-wars era with all kinds of people, whether stowaways seeking another life or aristocrats and aspirants seeking heat and glamour. The advent of easy travel in order to go on a holiday abroad was a novelty, but the difference with twenty-first century globe-trotting is marked. Now (pandemic restrictions notwithstanding) we hop on a flight and the point is the destination, not the journey. For a cheap ticket, we’ll pack all we need for a fortnight into a sponge bag, squeeze ourselves into a narrow seat, and forego any fripperies such as lunch. A hundred years ago, the journey was part of the holiday: the time you spent travelling could be just as exciting and glamorous as the place to which you were headed. Each day brought new opportunities to meet people, to dress up, and drink cocktails.
Enhancing this appeal were newsreels, shown in cinemas before the main film, which frequently carried footage of the rich and famous as they boarded or disembarked, accompanied by porters and several enormous leather trunks. Ernest Hemingway and Marlene Dietrich were seen on the Normandie, with its curved staircase that descended into a dining room longer than a football field. Greta Garbo took the Swedish American line several times, and Cary Grant was spotted aboard the SS Europa. The SS Manhattan was one of the largest liners built, carrying over 1,100 passengers; it cemented its fame with the Manhattan Cocktail (these fascinating facts come from Michael Grace).
On such ships, dinner could be seven courses long, with every possible type of extravagant food and wine available. There were libraries, several restaurants, casinos, and ballrooms on board, as well as every kind of sporting entertainment: golf, swimming in on-deck pools, and tennis. The best sport, naturally, was a daily perambulation around the deck spotting the more well-known figures on board. On arrival, each voyager would be given a ‘List of Passengers’, a booklet with general information about the ship, as well as a list of those staying alongside them. Perhaps it was all too often the case that the mention of a certain fellow guest could be tantalising temptation to those of a criminal mind…
Love the history of the high seas? Learn more about the ill-fated voyage of the Andrea Doria…
Jessica Fellowes is an author, journalist, and public speaker, best known for her five official New York Times bestselling companion books to the Downton Abbey TV series. Former deputy editor of Country Life, and columnist for the Mail on Sunday, she has written for the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, The Sunday Times, and The Lady. Jessica has spoken at events across the UK and US, and has made numerous appearances on radio and television. She lives in Oxfordshire with her family.
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