RogerBW's Blog

Holiday With Violence, Ellis Peters 22 May 2023

1952 thriller. Punch, Phyllida, Peter and Mab are on a European trekking holiday, before they have to go back to school or work. They meet a pleasant old man on the train, but later find him murderously attacked. And then things start to get odd.

Among fans of Ellis Peters's writing, this is often regarded as a minor, early work. The villains are obvious; the pace is slow; nothing too terrible is going to happen to anyone. But I regard it as something rather special.

Yes, the villains are obvious. This is a thriller, not a detective story. Yes, the pace is slow; this is a book from 1952, when foreign travel was regarded as exciting and exotic and worth paying attention to, so there's travelogue to go along with the thriller, describing the details of forcing oneself aboard a crowded train, and the slightly grotty but trying hard hotel in a small mountain village, and endlessly the wonders of Venice (doing a rather better job of the atmosphere than Donna Leon ever managed in the ten books of Commissario Brunetti that I read). Yes, none of the principals is going to die… but they don't know that, and one of them in particular will be in grave danger for an extended period.

There is one major plot hole: after Mab has become separated from the rest of the group she somehow knows the specifics of something that hadn't yet happened to them when she last saw them. (Or she intuits a lot from one brief glance, and never questions that intuition.) Much of the latter half of the book deals with Mab's pursuit of, and then pursuit by, the villains, and it's set largely inside her head and dealing with her own mental state. She isn't primed to be a hero; she's just a normal person who's found herself in this situation, and has to dig deep for strength to carry on.

Each of these characters has some growing up to do, but they're all individuals, even if sometimes lightly sketched – and I'd have liked to read more about them, though of course the odds are that they wouldn't ever have stumbled into another adventure.

A splendid book for those with the patience to enjoy it.

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See also:
A Sea of Troubles, Donna Leon

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