With high adventure, derring-do and thrills to keep the drowsiest sunbather awake, this is perfect holiday reading
I like big, fat books for the beach, enthralling enough to retain attention even against the warring attractions of sunlight on water and drowsy, sand-dry heat. I'm slightly too ashamed to read outright trash in public – but this is definitely not the context in which I wish to challenge myself. Complex literary prize-winners are for domestic train journeys, with plastic-flavoured tea and rain worming across the windows.
My ideal beach read, therefore, is a thrilling story in a classy, classic jacket. Just give me sun, sea and The Count of Monte Cristo, and I will be happy as a pig in plop. You can keep your musketeers – to me, Monte Cristo is the acme of Alexandre Dumas pere's oeuvre, demonstrating his inimitable mastery of high adventure, deadly intrigue, revenge, and general derring-do.
In 1815, Edmond Dantès, a 19-year-old merchant sailor, returns to port in Marseilles. Rich in nature's blessings, handsome, clever and well-made, he is about to be named captain of his ship, and to marry his Catalan fiancée, Mercédès. But, framed by his jealous rivals as a Bonapartist traitor, he is arrested on his wedding day and summarily imprisoned.
Dantès is incarcerated in the notorious Chateau d'If for 14 years. Here he receives an extensive education from the Abbé Faria in the next cell; acquires an aristocratic, unearthly pallor, allowing him, later, to masquerade as both a lord and a vampire; and is told the location of an unimaginable treasure – a barren island known as Monte Cristo.
Staging a daring escape, Dantès finds the treasure, but his life is irrevocably changed by his imprisonment. The years of his youth are lost; his father has died in penury. Mercédès, his betrothed, believing him gone forever, has married Fernand, his arch-rival, and borne him a son. Donning myriad disguises and aliases, Dantès sets out to wreak havoc among those who cost him so dear.
Despite its plethora of plot strands, places, and characters, and its layers of detail, rendered with a miniaturist's anxious exactitude, The Count of Monte Cristo remains compulsively readable. In part, this is because of its unrestrained richness – it's full of emeralds hollowed into pillboxes, diamond-bedecked horses, picturesque bandits and letters of unlimited credit. I also love its memorable, melodramatic crises, like the moment when Mercédès bursts through the polite fictions surrounding "the Count" to utter her despairing, agonised plea: "Edmond, you will not kill my son?"
But I think I find Dantè's narrative most addictive because it's a forerunner of the classic superhero stories – in essence, I'm sitting on the sand reading the world's heaviest comic. The Count has a great deal in common with, say, Batman; in his new incarnation, he's unrecognisable to almost everyone – and he has powers which seem almost supernatural, but which in fact derive from his limitless resources. He's driven by past trauma and injustice – but is ultimately forced to confront the fact that he, too, has strayed from the side of the angels, becoming almost as pernicious as the villains he persecutes.
There are notes in the book that I accepted unquestioningly as a younger reader, but which I find uncomfortable now. Ali, the Count's voiceless Nubian slave, is allowed to express only doglike devotion; and Eugenie, daughter of Dantè's arch-enemy, is humiliated for attempting to run away (scandalously and Sapphically, with her singing-teacher friend) from a forced marriage. Moments like these can jolt me out of my readerly bliss. But Dantè's extraordinary journey, from youthful naivety through madness, torment, and calculated revenge to an eventual peace, relinquishing his ultimate vengeance, remains one of my first choices for a sun-baked holiday – and damn the weight allowance.
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