x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The cast is assembled. Only the dirty deed is missing-

The travelling companions I met in China could inhabit an Agatha Christie novel.

Agatha Christie had a gift for dreaming up random groups of people, brought together in some common pursuit only to be torn apart by murder and mystery. None of my travelling companions during a short trip to China met an unfortunate end, I am relieved to report. One couple did risk an unfortunate end to their holiday before it had even started by declaring every minor ache and pain in an entry document. Paranoia about swine flu is alive and well in Beijing and this excess of candour might have been misinterpreted.

But the more I thought about our group, the more I convinced myself that here was plenty of material for the crime novelist. It has been the same on other tours I have experienced. Sailing in the French Caribbean aboard a catamaran, I rubbed shoulders with a bankrupt businessman, an intriguing Syrian couple (with a teenage son who clearly wished he was somewhere else), a newly single tennis coach and a glamorous young Franco-Romanian couple. And what did they make of us, the bald, slightly scruffy English journalist and his incongruously chic French wife?

In China, the imagination was set racing by my first conversation with an elegant middle-aged lady travelling with a friend. She had an unusual first name and I asked about its origins. "It's from a character in one of my godmother's novels," she replied. And what was the link between godmother, a famous author, and her family? "She and my mother were close friends." Then there were the charming newlyweds. The young man was an ancient history scholar. So why on earth did they leave the tour before the optional extra of a visit to Xian, home of the terracotta warriors?

Another couple kept ducking out of organised visits. This had the creative juices flowing until I realised that as adoptive parents of a Chinese girl, they had the plausible excuse of having seen the destinations before. At least they were with us when we went to the Great Wall. At lunch, we bumped into an entire coachload of westerners, each couple accompanied by a Chinese infant. They turned out to be French Canadians who had just taken custody of their own adopted children.

I can hardly fail to mention the amiable man of medicine with noticeably poor teeth that suggested, rightly, that his specialist field was not dentistry. Add the sprightly French septuagenarian, a divorcee to whom petty grievances about service and food came annoyingly easy, the timber specialist who had made a late-in-life career change to farming and a succession of beautiful tour guides, and you see that Agatha Christie would have had plenty of characters to work on.

But the anatomy of our tour group would be incomplete without the murder victim and suspect. I can think of no better scenario than that the chic Frenchwoman finally snapped at the bald scruffiness of her English journalist husband. crandall@thenational.ae