Peter Hitchens

The thrills of summers past

On the beach, nothing beats a good detective story

How my heart sinks at the sight of those little features on ‘summer reading’. Follow these recommendations and you will strain your shoulder and your purse, buying and carrying books that will stay unread at least until the cool blast of the autumnal equinox, and probably forever afterwards.

Ignore the log-rolling, the favours to friends and publishers, the favouritism of the bookshop display tables. As an occasional author, I long ago realised that at least half the book reviews in Britain are written by people who haven’t read the book they are writing about, and don’t much care. If you want something to read in the summer months, plunge instead into a secondhand bookshop (there are still some there) and seek out the intelligent thrillers and detective stories of the recent past.

For that moment when the sky darkens, and great masses of rain smack against the window of the isolated holiday cottage, or for the hot French midnight when sleep will not come, or for the winged hell of the airport and the plane, equip yourself with a bag of fraying green Penguins or crumbling, stained Pan paperbacks. If you’ve had the sense to take the slow train instead, well, better still. They may come to pieces in your hands, but they will beguile you and leave you better than you were before. None of these recommendations is mercenary or written in the hope of a favour in return. Everyone involved is dead.

If you’d like to imagine yourself broke on the platform of a central European railway station, on a frozen night in Hitler’s Europe, and suddenly offered an alluring but risky way out of your difficulties, I’d start with Eric Ambler, in his Popular Front days. In Uncommon Danger, you’ll end up meeting the only thoroughly charming GPU agents (a brother and sister) in English fiction, sneaking across the Czech frontier and almost meeting your end in pre-Munich Prague.

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