What a charming scene, a festive garden party, all summery and joyful. Champagne, feathers, corsets and straw boaters, the click of mallet on croquet ball, bird-like chatter and bell-like giggles as flirting occurs across the bowls of strawberries and cream.
How lovely. So, so delightful, so carefree.
But who is plotting murder? Which of the straw boaters conceals a mind full of schemes? Which linen-clad cad has a garotte in his inside pocket? Which of these lacy ladies has poison tucked into a garter?
Somewhere in this English scene is an unfrocked vicar, a colonel who delights in stockings and silky undies, a lady in a froth of feathers who guards secrets like a tigress, and a duchess who runs a spy ring for an enemy of the Crown. Which of them is the lord of logic, the amateur sleuth who will scoop up clues and sniff out the slayer?
And the crucial question: which of these people will not survive till the village clock strikes six?
The whole process of travel – on public transport, not in a car – is fraught with opportunity for storytellers.
Four flights and two train journeys in three days have made me think about the possibilities for mystery, murder, suspense and romance in the confusion of airports and stations.
Alfred Hitchcock made the most of trains in several movies, and there is the glorious example of The Lady Vanishes. Arthur Haley’s Airport, milked the drama of air travel, and the spoof Airplane! and its sequels milked the comedy potential… to the very last drop. We already have a long list of travellers’ tales, but there is plenty of scope for the rest of us.
Love and death
Think of the numbers of people at any one moment in a big airport. Staff and travellers must add up to tens of thousands of people on the move; a clever murderer could kill and get away with it, even with the hundreds of cameras watching every twitch and grimace.
The romance of two people in transit, a fleeting encounter, infinite futures… the potential is limitless. An airport sees people from everywhere in the world; the poor and the rich, the celebrated and the anonymous – crossing paths in limbo, where so much is out of their control.
Airports are ideas factories. Ferries, too. The best time to watch is in the early hours, where travellers wait for hours, too tired to pretend, sleepy, out of sorts, too hot or too cold, bored and frustrated. One can spend happy hours dreaming up their stories, earwigging on their monosyllabic conversations, wondering what if and what next.
Next time you fly, give yourself extra time between connections to watch, listen and dream.
1. The 10th anniversary of a murder. Woman was stabbed while walking to a restaurant to meet her fiancé. Man was convicted and put away, but it was the wrong man. The murderer goes back to the restaurant to celebrate his victory. Who else is there?
2. A woman invites all her exes to dinner on 14th Feb by telling them, in the Valentine’s card invitations, that she is dying. Who turns up? What happens?
3. A man hides a diamond ring in a fairy cake, puts it on a plate with six others, and serves it to his girlfriend as Valentine’s dessert. He asks her to choose. No ring, no proposal. How does she react?
4. I typed the date 14th Feb, by mistake, as 114th Feb. Made me wonder where it might be 114th Feb, and what St Valentine might be known for there.
5. An old woman looks out of the attic window on Valentine’s Day and sees a man outside the house; he has a dog on a string by one hand, and a huge bunch of red roses in the other. She rushes downstairs. Why?
6. There’s a Valentine’s Day competition running in CID, with a prize of two hundred quid for the fastest arrest. What’s it all about?
Plot v character
These are plot ideas. None of them grab me and make me want to know more*. Why is that?
For me, plot comes from character, rather than the reverse. I meet a character – see someone from the train, or bump into them in a cafe, or stand behind them in a lift. They catch my attention, and I start speculating. Who? Where? How? Who else? What next? What if?
As my festering imagination whirrs into operation I discover little things about them. They’re scared of balloons, or they make marmelade, or they have an aunt who’s 103. Each little quirk or quality pushes me off on another round of speculation until there’s a germ of a story. Often the story doesn’t make itself obvious until a second character turns up, either in reality, or in my head. An unlikely couple, or an all-too-likely couple. A line of dialogue, a gesture, their body language.
What’s missing from all those ideas is any real character. As such, they’re just ten-a-penny ideas which I don’t really care about. Characters, once alive in your head, will start kicking. All you have to do is follow them and watch the story unfold.
*Except I want the woman made to choose a cake to pick up the plate and shove the cakes into her boyfriends face – and make him eat the ring.