Read this exclusive guest post from Kate Horsley, author of The American Girl, about the thrill of traveling to strange and foreign places and how that creates the perfect setting for crime novels. Then, make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of the book!
What better reading matter to take with you on holiday than a book about someone on else on holiday, especially if that person happens to be living dangerously? For me, there’s always been something especially enthralling about novels that blend the vividness of travel writing with a walk on the dark side, from the Mary Stewart and Rumer Godden novels I read as a kid to more recent classics like Alex Garland’s The Beach.
Jim Morrison sang that, “People are strange when you’re a stranger.” The ubiquity of that sensation has driven the franchise of Taken thrillers, starring Liam Neeson, in which the relentless hero kicks the asses of foreign baddies in search of his daughter. This turned out to be a scenario simultaneously so convincing and so troubling that it put some American parents off sending their children to Europe completely. Neeson, a keen traveler himself, was called upon to reassure them that his troubles abroad were only fiction. Our innate fear of the unfamiliar is often what feeds the thrill of foreign-set suspense, but should it?
After all, although a trip to an exotic clime can lure us into the orbit of dangerous strangers, it can also bring out our own dark side. Think of Patricia Highsmith's iconic Tom Ripley, who, in going to Italy, escapes the dull facts of his identity and refashions himself in a new world of exciting contingency, revealing himself as a sociopath in the process. Having acquired a “magical cap” capable of altering his character and personality, he amuses himself by standing in front of the mirror in his cabin, admiring the way in which his “conformist’s face” can be changed into anything he wants it to be, whether thug, eccentric, or young man with a private income—in going abroad, “he was starting a new life.”
Not all of the travelers of crime fiction are able to be as coolly deliberate as Ripley. Travel crime comes in all shapes and sizes. There’s much excellent detective fiction that takes place abroad, for example, though I tend to find myself drawn to the noir side of travel crime: moral grey areas opening up in colorful places. Crime fiction, as a whole, thrives on the slipperiness of identity, feelings of estrangement, and encounters with the unknown; all of these elements can be heightened by the experience of foreign travel. Characters who venture abroad encounter great danger on occasion. In other cases, they slip the moorings of their daily existence and become “unreliable narrators,” leading the reader, and others, astray. Sometimes, both things happen at once.
The “holiday gone wrong” novel often involves characters straying into a world more depraved and dangerous than they had imagined, and in consequence, suffering psychological damage that persists far beyond the holiday itself. In Helen Fitzgerald’s Viral (2016), for example, sensible, studious teenager Su is sent by her mother to keep an eye on her wayward sister Leah, and, in an environment completely unfamiliar to her, is drawn into a drink-and-drug-fueled night of partying. When she wakes the next morning, the film someone took of her multiple sexual indiscretions is already online—a very public form of ridicule and slut-shaming that threatens to change out of all recognition the identity and life of Fitzgerald’s young protagonist.
Daniel and Laura in Mark Edwards’s Follow You Home (2015) are backpacking through Europe, their last big trip before they settle down. But, their holiday is cut short when they stray off the path and blunder into the gothic world of an unspeakable house in the Romanian hinterland. They escape, but only to find that ghosts and monsters have followed them back—and that they have themselves been so much altered by the experience that their lives might never be the same.
C. L. Taylor’s The Lie (2015) creates an even more extreme version of the idyllic holiday from which no one emerges unscathed. Four friends set off for the mountains of Nepal, imagining an exotic, life-enhancing journey. But, in reality, the perverse and threatening retreat, Ekanta Yatra, breaks down personalities and destroys friendships. Even five years later, the protagonist is unable to escape the psychological trauma and murderous impulses unleashed by the nightmarish experience.
My own novel, The American Girl (2016), draws its inspiration from a memorable summer in my early teens when I visited France on an exchange. The town I went to was remote and rustic. The family I stayed with were utter strangers, and my exchange and I weren’t destined to get along. Add to that French cigarettes, alcohol, local boys on mopeds, and the dark woods stretching out beyond the little villa, and the trip became the perfect storm for a teen on the rampage.
Previously a shy, bookish kid, I changed completely, cutting a swathe through that town, drinking, smoking, and being generally bad. The whole thing felt like temporary insanity, though the madness left its mark. When I got home, I had the feeling my own family no longer knew me. Like the latter-day fans of Taken, my parents had worried about the dangers of strangers. Maybe they should have worried more about whatever darkness lay under the apparently innocent surface of their teenage daughter and what being miles from home might bring out in her.
Years later, reading about the Amanda Knox case, I found myself wondering what could have happened if things had gone just a little more wrong that summer. The addictive did she or didn’t she trial by media surrounding that case combined with my own vivid memories of being an unruly foreigner to form the basis of The American Girl, in which exchange student Quinn Perkins stumbles out of the woods near a French town. Barefoot and bloodied, her appearance creates a stir, especially since her host family has mysteriously disappeared. Journalist Molly Swift is drawn to the story and will do anything to discover whether Quinn is really an innocent abroad or a diabolical killer intent on getting away with murder. Molly herself, however, is not entirely to be trusted.
The fictional travelers of travel crime are on journeys that usually reach some kind of terminus. Crimes are solved, the ghosts of the past are confronted, and transgressors on the run either escape or are caught. As holiday readers of crime fiction, we, too, are only temporarily on the run—indulging for the duration of our holiday in the fantasy of disguises and alter egos and briefly imagining exposure to the attendant fictional dangers.
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Kate Horsley is the author of The American Girl—William Morrow/Killer Reads, Summer 2016—a novel inspired by her own foreign misadventures. Her first novel, The Monster's Wife, was shortlisted for the Scottish First Book of the Year Award and her poems and short fiction have been published in a number of magazines and anthologies including Best British Crime Stories. She lives in Manchester with her artist husband, John, and a small person called Violet and travels abroad in a range of elaborate disguises.