My Obsession with Spas

I decided to set my latest novel – Did You See Melody? –  in a five-star spar resort in Arizona, and that got me thinking about travel, holidays and especially spa resorts – not only as amazing pampering experiences, but also as settings for novels…

A Place Within a Place

I was approximately thirty-eight before I learned how to travel properly. By which I mean: to travel in way that suited me best, not in the way I felt expected to travel. I used to fear the criticisms of my fellow travellers if I got it wrong. On a British Council tour in the Philippines, I felt very guilty when I confessed to another writer that I planned to spend all my free time sitting by the gorgeous hotel pool, swimming and reading novels, rather than exploring the local area and seeing how real Philippinos lived. I felt even worse when the same writer snapped at me that I was crazy to buy things from that hotel’s gift shop instead of going out to dusty market places and haggling for them. (These days, I say proudly, ‘I’m going on a swimming holiday again this year’ – because why not, when other people talk about their cycling and walking holidays?)

Only when I started writing crime fiction and doing regular book tours in the US, Australia, South Africa, Asia and Europe did I realise – through being away from home often enough to get to know myself as a traveller – that my preferences were as valid as anyone else’s, and that I must embrace rather than make excuses for them. I even wrote poem called Postcard From a Travel Snob, parodying some snooty people’s disdain for those of us who like pleasurable and luxurious travel experiences. It begins: 

I do not wish that anyone were here.
This place is not a holiday resort
With karaoke nights and pints of beer
For drunken tourist types. Perish the thought.

I had acquired a new insight into my travel desires: I was attracted not so much to places as to places within places. For me, a nice hotel in a beautiful city, or by the sea, or surrounded by stunning countryside, was a destination worthy of serious consideration –  especially if the hotel was also a spa resort, as these tended to be bigger, all-encompassing and more like little villages or towns in their own right. I found I particularly loved those resorts with little maps that underlined their status as proper places in need of navigational aids. 

Maybe that’s why I first felt the urge to set a crime novel in a fictional amalgamation of my favourite spa resorts. I loved the idea of putting a resort map in the front of my book, like the village maps and floorpans of houses that often appear in the crime novels I read. Again and again in discussions about crime fiction, one thing crops up: a sense of place and space. The motto ‘Location, location, location’ is generally agreed to be as vital to fiction-writers and readers as it is to house-hunters. From Ian Rankin’s vivid depictions of Edinburgh in his brilliant Rebus novels to Nicci French’s richly detailed and affectionate portraits of London, it’s clear that setting matters in books. And a setting doesn’t have to be a town or city or village. Why couldn’t it be a five-star spa resort? I wondered. I decided it could, should and – in my next novel – would.

 People say you should write what you know, but I think better advice is write what you love and are obsessed with. It makes the research so much easier and more pleasurable. And I love spa resorts with a passion. I believe that relaxing and having pure, blissful fun in a place – with no sweaty dashing around at the mercy of a tourist itinerary – is a perfectly valid way to experience a new place. I have a collector mentality when it comes to spas, and want to stay in as many as I can, all over the world. Each one is a world unto itself, with rules and customs, characters, distinct atmospheres and signature treatments – and they are always shut off from their surroundings. Looked at in a certain way, a spa could be seen as sinister: people walk around slowly and silently, in white robes, with blissed-out faces, on their way to rooms full of soft, tinkly music, to have exotic oils rubbed all over their bodies by strangers in monochrome tunics.

My emotional life has been measured out in spas. I vividly remember the full-body Swedish massage I had as a new mother. Regularly up all night dispensing bottles of Cow & Gate to two children under two years old, I had to be shaken awake by the masseur at the end of the session. When she told me she was finished and I had to get up and go, I burst into tears at the prospect of returning to my normal, sleep-deprived, non-orange-blossom scented life. Equally burned on my memory is the hot stones massage I treated myself to after having had a sinister and inappropriate guilt trip laid on me by a psychologically abusive bully. I rejected the guilt and spent a blissful hour beneath the hot stones, thinking, ‘Hah! Stuff you! I’m having fun instead of suffering as you believe I should!’

The more luxurious Arizona spas I visited – the Enchantment Resort in Sedona, for instance – made the crime writer in me powerfully aware that you can cocoon yourself in a pristine, protected and pampered environment and still be in terrible danger. How could I resist inflicting that very predicament upon the heroine of my next novel? Only after I’d treated her to a full body Ayervedic aromatherapy massage, naturally. I’m not a complete sadist!