All Behind the Book essays

I can think of a thousand things that inspired me to write New York, My Village. I can tell stories of how my first impressions of the Bronx, New York, during my first visit to America in August 1993 have continued to fertilize my imagination. I can tell you of how my life as a former Catholic seminarian/priest got me to see racism from the unique angle of the Holy of Holies. I can tell you how shocked I was to discover the whiteness and racism of the big American publishing houses as I auctioned my first book, the story collection Say You're One of Them (Little, Brown, 2008). I can tell you how New York City bedbugs ate up my peace in 2013 and of my fears that I would spread the bugs to the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library, where I was a fellow. I can tell you how a group of African American professionals from Atlanta, Georgia—which the author Anthony Grooms brought together in 2014—encouraged me to set my writing in America so I could write about racism.

But suffice it to share with you how the first two chapters of New York, My Village were inspired by an American visa interview in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2004.

I was living in Nigeria when I landed an admission to the Helen Zell Writers' Program of the University of Michigan. It meant the world to me. I'd always loved Midwestern America, having studied in Omaha, Nebraska, in the mid-1990s. Though the U.S. visa process in Nigeria had always felt like being dragged to court, I didn't foresee any major difficulties, since this was going to be my fourth visa.

Read our review of 'New York, My Village.'

I showed up early in the morning at the embassy. Because of the crowds of visa applicants, I finally got interviewed around 3 p.m. The fact that I was nursing a cold didn't help matters. Because of the embassy's powerful air conditioning, I was sniffling and clearing my throat the whole time. But I'd say I was coping well with the extremely tense atmosphere.

The American consular officers can ask you anything. ANYTHING. They can even insult your accent or mock your country if they feel like it. I've attempted to capture the terror that is a Western embassy visa process in the developing world in the opening pages of New York, My Village. But that day in the American embassy, decked out in my Roman collar, nothing could have shocked me more than when my interviewer asked me to write him a short story to prove I was a writer.

Thinking this write-me-a-story thing was a joke, I shrugged and giggled and told him the University of Michigan and other programs had already ascertained I was a writer, hence the admission and scholarship offers. He pretended he didn't hear me and chattily asked why I wanted to be a fiction writer and not a poet. "Maybe someday I'll also write poetry, sir," I said as I stood there before his booth. In the silence that followed his nod, I was confident I'd secured the visa. But looking beyond my jubilant face, he slid me a pen and paper, insisting I write a story. When I looked lost, he started typing into his computer.

My fingers began to tremble with shock, then anger. I wanted so much to spit in the face of this consular officer. I kept clearing my throat, though I wanted to blow my nose and pour mucus all over him, his computer and the booth. Yet I wore a pleasant face, because as they say, it's only when the mosquito lands on your balls that you realize there are ways to solve a problem without violence.

Nobody had ever abused my writing talent like this interviewer! If I remember correctly, this man wasn't even angry at me. He seemed pleased that he could get fresh writing out of me at visa point—as in gun point. I'd never drafted a short story in a week, much less in a few minutes. My quickest draft took two sleepless weeks and resulted in the shortest story in my collection, "What Language Is That?" And apart from the fact that my fingers were too sweaty to hold the pen, I couldn't remember the last time I wrote longhand. To be asked to do this, at what seemed like the biggest test of my talent, felt totally cruel.

"Sir, could I sit down to write the story?" I remember murmuring.

"Mr. Akpan, that won't be necessary," he said, smiling like he was saving me from being lazy. "Just a short story. Nothing long."

I tried to write on the booth counter. It would also be the first time I wrote a story while standing up. And I prefer to write at night.

"My stories feel like an unresolvable crisis within me, something I can't escape from, something I must carefully and sensitively incubate forever."

Even in the best of situations, my stories do everything to sabotage me. They do everything not to submit to my dreams. I wake up some days without enough faith even to love the "lovely" passages I've written. It's always a fight, a long, drawn-out war whose battles I win one at a time, mainly because I run away to fight another day or week or year. 

My stories feel like an unresolvable crisis within me, something I can't escape from, something I must carefully and sensitively incubate forever, or till I miraculously discover how to show the invisible connections and bonds and spirit between the disparate characters and parts. I must rewrite countless times "to get in the reader's face," as Stephen King puts it. I live in admiration of those who publish a book every other year. But during that interview, I doubt even the most productive of authors could've written anything.

"Sir, it takes me a loooong time to write a story," I said.

"No, this shouldn't take long," my interviewer said.

"I could show you the samples that got me into Michigan from my laptop."

"Come on, you can do it!"

He was distracted by a colleague who entered his booth to ask a question. But the impatience in my interviewer's voice had warned me that, as our people say, he had both the yam and the knife. I was a beggar.

Even my eyes refused to focus on the paper he'd given me. Instead, they focused on my shoes, which seemed very far away or as though they belonged to someone else. I felt stupid, as if this man were trying to prove that I'd scammed my way to Michigan. I was afraid he saw me as a criminal he must stop from reaching the shores of his country. I began to understand those who think that the sole purpose of immigration departments is to keep people out of their countries.

Still my mind was blank. Nope, it wasn't blank—it was scalded by anger and humiliation and shame. My mind started bubbling with cusses instead of sentences for the opening of a story. I wanted to tell him to go "hug a transformer," as we say in Nigeria, meaning to go and electrocute yourself with the highest voltage possible. I wanted to cuss the whole embassy: "Efiig ijire nyine . . . may hernia swell your testicles!" (One of my Black characters in New York, My Village says this when white church ushers want to flush him from a New Jersey church.)

The consular officer couldn't even let me think up a short story in peace; he kept looking at his watch and telling me to hurry up, reminding me he still had many people to interview. He'd become more impatient, more restless. His powers over me meant he also had the luxury to show how he really felt. He tried to make me feel as though I was the one holding up his important job, locking up hundreds of people all day in this embassy. And what options did I have but to stand there and let him torture me? This sense of powerlessness was the height of my violation. Even my cold felt strange, as though the mucus in my nostril was slowly turning into sand and blocking my breathing.

Even when I tried to sublimate my horrible mental state with prayers, they still came out raw. "Oh, the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," I prayed silently, "please, don't let this f**king asshole of an American destroy my American dream! Oh, Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints and angels, move and intercede for the grace for me to be calm to write this stupid story. Don't wait till my situation becomes hopeless, just so that you can dispatch Saint Jude, patron of hopeless causes, that perpetual latecomer!"

– – – – –

But heaven knew I needed this visa more than anything. I had always believed that America would develop my writing. And that afternoon, it calmed me to remember that this America terrorizing me now was the same America doling out MFA scholarships to our army of new Nigerian talents.

Prudence meant I quietly ate the shit of this short story-writing humiliation. After all, I'd already done the hard part, getting admission into Michigan. I'd lived through five anxious months as the MFA program read earlier versions of "An Ex-Mas Feast" and "My Parents' Bedroom" (both of which made 2005 and 2006 editions of The New Yorker). Now to buoy my spirit, I tried to remember the sweet, welcoming emails from my would-be Michigan writing professors: Eileen Pollack, Nick Delbanco and Peter Ho Davies. They said they loved my writing and would help me become a better writer. They said they loved my imagery and voice—even if I chose another program.

After about 15 minutes of wracking my brain, I managed to come up with two stupid sentences: I could never have known **** was a thief until that night. You would never have believed he could have treated me like this. I didn't want to show this to him. I believed I'd flunked the interview since I couldn't write beyond these two lines. But I was tired of him harrying me and worried about the people still waiting to be interviewed, so I held my breath and slid the paper back to him.

"So, Mr. Akpan, what happened next?" he asked excitedly after reading it aloud. 

"I don't know," I said.

"No, I really want to know what he did."

"I have no idea, sir."

"But you can just tell me what he did. Just summarize. It's really gripping."

"I would have to create the whole story from scratch and then summarize."

Disappointed, he shrugged and asked how I was going to pay for my MFA since I'd rejected Michigan's scholarship offer. I said my church would. But since I'd forgotten to bring the church's financial statement, he became very quiet and still, his face hardened like he was going to finally nail me. I just kept saying I'd bring it the following day, knowing that providing this paperwork would be less difficult than writing the two-liner. I babbled and begged till he took my passport and said to come for the visa in two days' time. I thanked him and loosened my collar and sauntered out, whistling a song of gratitude to the Virgin Mary.

Author photo © Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services

An unusual request during a visa interview left Uwem Akpan, author of the bestselling story collection Say You’re One of Them, scrambling to find his voice. It also helped to spark his first novel, New York, My Village.

In my memoir, The Electricity of Every Living Thing, I write not just about my late autism diagnosis but also about the experience of unearthing a hidden self. This autistic version of me was smothered and buried in childhood, when I saw very clearly and painfully that she was unacceptable to the outside world. I determined to make a bright, shiny new person in her place, one who fit in. I then spent the next 30 years ineffectually covering my tracks.

And yet, once I had a name for what I was, I knew immediately that I wanted to write about it, and to externalize all those parts of my experience that I found so shameful for so long. I wanted to capture the feeling of being profoundly different from most of the people around me, the struggles to cope with everyday life, the canvas of self-loathing and exhaustion onto which I painted my identity. Most of all, I wanted to write about the process of concealing all this, even from myself. I wanted to show what it was like to undergo this unpeeling.

Read our review of 'The Electricity of Every Living Thing.'

The question I often get asked is: Why? Why would I expose such a raw nerve? Why would I so willingly express my otherness and undermine my chance to be "one of us"? I could, after all, make my own private adaptations and carry on pretending to the outside world that I am perfectly fine. 

This archaeology of the soul is common currency in memoir. Like therapy, life writing encourages us to dig through the strata of our experiences to uncover something that glints with fascination. Except that we memoirists undertake this work in public. It is, I'll admit, an unusual instinct. Memoirists don't simply manifest their pain. We dig deeper into it, picking at the healed parts until they bleed again.

But this is the offering that memoirists make to our readers. In return for their attention, we offer them contact with our humanity. Good memoir is transgressive because it exposes the secrets we hold in common. It offers both reader and writer the catharsis of shedding shame. Quite often, readers find a mirror of the aspects of themselves that they thought were their own unique burdens. This is an exchange of gifts: By writing, I affirm the experiences of others; by being read, I am affirmed. 

"Memoirists don't simply manifest their pain. We dig deeper into it, picking at the healed parts until they bleed again."

But I think we defang memoir when we only see it as a therapeutic tool, a simple airing of private experience. It's also a craft, a creative form within which I practice. I wrote The Electricity of Every Living Thing because I wanted to explore how to tell a story that took the reader on the same journey that I took, the gradual uncovering of the true nature of my mind. I wanted readers to experience coming to love the differences you've always despised in yourself, and to finally integrate your sense of outsidership.

This is, of course, political. Memoir usually is. When I started to imagine this book, I knew that it would have to subvert a number of common ideas. For example, it would need to make readers painfully aware that they have probably misunderstood autism, just as I did. To achieve that, I had to show myself being wrong.

As I wrote about walking 630 miles along the South West Coast Path in England, I also sought to undermine the heroic narrative of journeys into the wilderness, to resist the idea that I had to effect some kind of physical triumph to assert my value in this world. This was intended as a sly critique of the male adventurer whose feats of exploration are underwritten by the work of an invisible woman. In my book, I show how difficult it was to get time alone to walk as the mother of a young child, and I make the compromises and conflicts part of the story. 

"Not all readers understand that memoir is a literary form rather than an affidavit. I tell what I choose to tell, and the hidden side of that is what I choose to withhold."

Because memoir tells a true story, the contract with the reader is different: Their attention is drawn by fascination with the real rather than by the promise of a good yarn, in which everything turns out all right in the end. This is absolutely why I write memoir. It functions more like gossip than the hero's journey, and so it buys me a license to stretch the boundaries of conventional storytelling. I can teach without being didactic. I can show you life in a different mind in a way that feels elemental rather than told. 

Of course, when you transform details from your real life into story, the sense of exposure can bite—but that comes most of all when the contract between reader and writer is broken. Not all readers understand that memoir is a literary form rather than an affidavit. I tell what I choose to tell, and the hidden side of that is what I choose to withhold. I grow uncomfortable when people pry further. Memoirists can be fiercely protective of the privacies they choose to keep. 

But ultimately the exposure doesn't trouble me because I already processed my feelings of shame during the act of writing, and now I'm ready to share the product of that time. It's a particular kind of story, both lived and made, a crafted truth. It was made to change both reader and writer. It was made to share.

Bestselling memoirist Katherine May opens up about the risks and rewards of writing about her late-in-life autism diagnosis.

A glamorous dinner party goes horribly wrong in Tess Little's debut novel, The Last Guest. The host, ostentatious director Richard Bryant, ends up dead and all the guests are suspects. So far, so Agatha Christie, but Little draws from the novel's setting in the Hollywood Hills to cinematic effect, using the tropes of classic film noir and more modern, surrealist thrillers to create something entirely her own. If you find yourself wanting to watch a movie after finishing The Last Guest, Little has five perfect pairings in mind. 


It would be impossible to distinguish all the influences on any novel—as impossible as unmixing paint or lifting brushstrokes from the canvas. But those that had the greatest impact will always loom large in the writer's mind. My debut novel, The Last Guest, is set in Los Angeles, and so I often reached for films while seeking inspiration. Who could paint a portrait of that city without wielding the color and texture of cinema?

The Invitation (2015), directed by Karyn Kusama

The Invitation is a masterful, slow-burning character study that explores grief, survival and unravelling social norms. As a horror film, it largely differs from my novel, a murder mystery. But their premises mirror each other closely—a home perched in the Hollywood Hills, an intimate dinner party, the mounting tension and creeping dread. As I was writing The Last Guest, my thoughts kept returning to the winding road in the opening scene, leading the protagonist towards his ex-wife's house and the horrific night awaiting him there.

Mulholland Drive (2001), directed by David Lynch

Darker and more surreal than Sunset Boulevard, neo-noir Mulholland Drive was another film that sat with me as I wrote. The Last Guest is less of a dreamscape, more firmly rooted in reality, but the rich colors, underlying unease and ugly Hollywood truths of Lynch's masterpiece were hanging over me nonetheless.

The Octopus (1928), directed by Jean Painlevé

If the 2020 runaway hit documentary My Octopus Teacher had been released before I wrote The Last Guest, it would certainly have provided inspiration for Persephone—the giant Pacific octopus who appears in the novel. As it was, I had to search for the creatures elsewhere, and found the silent, underwater films of French director Jean Painlevé online. In The Octopus, the strange anatomy of this alien animal is presented in black and white, tight close-ups giving a detailed study of how octopuses crawl, climb and jet through the water, how their siphons inflate to breathe and how their skin cells change color to camouflage.

Play it as it Lays (1972), directed by Frank Perry

Joan Didion's spare, exacting prose has long served as an example for my own writing, and so too did Play it as it Lays, the film based on her novel of the same name. Protagonist Maria drifts through LA in an existential emptiness, taking long, lonely drives, much as my novel's narrator, Elspeth, does. The sun is shining, as are the cars, the teeth, the oversized shades—but it all means nothing to Maria.

Sunset Boulevard (1950), directed by Billy Wilder

Any thriller set in LA will naturally be inspired by classic film noir, and Sunset Boulevard has everything you could want from the genre: a body floating in the swimming pool, a decaying mansion, directors and former silent movie stars playing themselves, even a chimpanzee funeral. While The Last Guest doesn't feature an oil painting that lifts to reveal a cinema screen or a dead chimp, my own version of 10086 Sunset Blvd. does contain a pet octopus—and a projector screen that rolls down over its aquarium.

Tess Little’s sumptuous debut thriller takes as much inspiration from Agatha Christie as it does from its setting in the Hollywood Hills. Here’s what to watch after reading 'The Last Guest.'

In Joanna Shupe’s latest romance novel, A Scandalous Deal, aspiring architect Eva Hyde has found the perfect project to establish her reputation—a glittering, luxurious hotel in New York City. But her attraction to her employer, powerful businessman Phillip Mansfield, threatens to expose her identity and ruin her carefully laid plans. Shupe’s the Four Hundred series are some of the best new books set in the Gilded Age, and follow English noblewomen as they discover the intoxicating freedom and powerful men of turn-of-the-century America.

The Gilded Age might not be as popular a time period as the Regency and Victorian eras in historical romance, but it’s been a steady subgenre for years, offering readers a less restrictive, even more ridiculously opulent setting than the ballrooms of English high society. In this guest post, Shupe told us which five books she recommends for fans of the period.


Opulence. Innovation. Corruption. America’s Gilded Age had all this and much more. I have always been fascinated by this era because it is fraught with tension and conflict—perfect for romance stories! Here are five of my favorite novels set in Gilded Age New York.

 

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

What happens when you fall in love with a scandalous divorcée when duty and conformity are your entire world? This is the question Newland Archer must face when he meets the beautiful Countess Olenska in old New York. Wharton’s writing is divine and a true window into the high society of Mrs. Astor’s time. (When you are done with the book, go watch the Daniel Day-Lewis movie adaptation. That carriage scene . . . swoon!)

 

Lions and Lace by Meagan McKinney

When her wealthy family is ruined, Alana Van Alan is left on the doorstep of the man responsible, ruthless financier Trevor Sheridan, also known as the Predator. Sheridan’s Irish ancestry makes him think a Knickerbocker princess like Alana could never truly love him. The story gives some insight into the prejudices of the time, and the high society world building is outstanding. Warning, this is an old-school romance—but it’s one of my desert island keepers.

 

Deadly Vows by Brenda Joyce

Francesca Cahill is an amateur sleuth and socialite in Old New York and she’s about to marry Calder Hart—or is she? When she gets caught up in the hunt to find a scandalous painting, her future and her relationship are suddenly threatened. This is the final book in Joyce’s Deadly mystery series. While this one was my favorite, do yourself a favor and start at the beginning of the series (Deadly Love) because each book is fantastic.

 

Destiny’s Captive by Beverly Jenkins

Pilar Banderas is a Cuban rebel and she needs to steal a ship. Unfortunately for Noah Yates, his ship is the one she chooses. When he wakes up from being kidnapped, he’s tied to a bed (yes!), his ship is already at sea and he vows revenge on the pirate. This story is pure delicious fun from start to finish, with a feisty heroine and unique locations like Cuba, Florida and California. When Noah called Pilar “mi pequeña pirata,” I dropped dead from the feels. This book is a must-read for anyone who loves a sword-wielding heroine.

 

Duchess by Design by Maya Rodale

A desperate duke comes to Gilded Age New York to marry an American heiress and save his family. Instead, he falls for a spunky-but-definitely-poor seamstress. This is the first in Rodale’s Gilded Age Girls Club series and it isn’t available until October 23, but I was lucky enough to read an early copy. The story is delightful, with plenty of Rodale’s signature witty dialogue and clever details. I devoured this American twist on the familiar duke trope.

Author Joanna Shupe recommends five romances set in turn-of-the-century America.

Robert Repino’s War With No Name science fiction series began with an immediately compelling premise: What if animals gained sentience and rose up against humans? But the heart of the series lies in an interspecies friendship between Mort(e), a former housecat, and Sheba, the dog who was his best friend before the world changed forever.

With the release of Malefactor, the final novel, Repino looks back on the surprising, heartwarming origins of the War With No Name series.


In the fall of 2009, I awoke from a strange dream and immediately began scribbling everything I could recall in my notebook. Groggy and working by the light of a Manhattan streetlight, I remembered an image of my old neighborhood in the Philadelphia suburb of Drexel Hill. An enormous spaceship hovered directly above my parents’ backyard, with a metal gangplank extending from the hull to the grass. A strange energy pulsed from inside the ship. And all the pets and stray animals in the neighborhood suddenly, as if on cue, rose onto their hind legs in a comical but hideous impersonation of humans. At that moment, all hell broke loose. The animals attacked, dragging the humans from their homes, cornering them against cyclone fences and manicured shrubs. It was grotesque and liberating at the same time because, in my mind, I was among the animals, yearning for some kind of revenge, unable to ignore my instincts to kill and to protect my territory. By the time I was done, I asked myself what an uplifted animal would choose as a name. And without thinking, I wrote what felt like a nonsense word: Mort(e). I fell back asleep.

The dream could not have come at a better time. I was between my second and third failed novels. Book number three—a somewhat autobiographical work set in the Caribbean—was about to go out to agents, a miserable process that had already left me in despair the previous two times I tried it. I had come from the MFA world and had produced mainly literary work up until then, with a few short stories published here and there. And now, with this dream still rattling in my head, I had to ask: Could I change course and write a completely bonkers novel about a war between humans and sentient animals?

All my sad little eggs were in one basket with this goofy mess of a science fiction novel, part epic, part Saturday morning cartoon.

So, while novel number three began its journey through the meat grinder, novel number four—Mort(e)—came to life a few months later. By then, I had replaced the aliens with a hyperintelligent ant colony. Insects that are treated like pests would have a more coherent motivation to wage war with humanity, and would hark back to some of the weird B-movie entertainment that helped to raise me like Them! and Phase IV. That first draft opened with the aftermath of my dream, with the humans tied up and carted away by their new animal overlords. And from there, I let it rip, creating a war story with characters who find themselves permanently damaged by their pyrrhic victory over their sworn enemy.

But believe it or not, all of this was meant to be a love story. When I asked myself who the protagonists would be, the answer was simple. Before I was born, my parents adopted an orange and white cat named Sebastian when they moved into their first apartment. In the unit below lived another married couple, who owned a big dog named Sheba. My parents became such good friends with the couple below that they named them as my godparents when I came along a few years later. Sebastian and Sheba, meanwhile, had an adorable friendship, often falling asleep together on the landing of the steps that connected the two apartments. That experience may have convinced Sebastian that he was a dog. There is a scene in the novel in which the cat protagonist fiercely “protects” the house from a babysitter, which is word-for-word reenactment of an incident from my youth. My mom still loves to tell that story. And so, Sebastian and Sheba were the perfect couple to place at the center of the chaos of war.

While Mort(e) continued to grow, my previous novel crashed and burned. Though I found someone to represent it, the book languished for over a year on submission. Eventually, I had no choice but to part ways with the agent I had spent nearly a decade trying to find. Over five years had passed since completing my MFA, and everything felt like it was going backward. By then, all my sad little eggs were in one basket with this goofy mess of a science fiction novel, part epic, part Saturday morning cartoon.

As I tried to focus on the positive, I found the book changing as well. In later drafts, I deemphasized the spectacle of the premise in favor of the simple, platonic, interspecies love story. That’s been the backbone of the entire series, which I think made it attractive to a new agent and, eventually, to a publisher. The series now includes three novels and a spinoff novella. Somehow, as I moved on from a demoralizing period in my career, I was able to conclude the War With No Name on a relatively positive note with Malefactor, focusing more on redemption rather than revenge, and forgiveness rather than judgment. Frustration and despair may have given birth to the project, and even sustained it for a while, but what’s the use in that if it doesn’t lead to something better?

 

Author photo by Nicholas Repino

Robert Repino looks back on the surprising, heartwarming origins of his War with No Name series, which follows an interspecies war between animals and humans.

Lexie Elliott’s new book, How to Kill Your Best Friend, is perhaps the ideal escapist thriller: a possible murder, a friend group practically bursting at the seams with drama and some very twisted secrets, all against the backdrop of a luxury resort on a gorgeous, isolated island in Southeast Asia. We asked Elliott to share more suspenseful novels with stunning settings.


Writers: We’re a strange breed, and none more so than crime writers. Give us a beautiful villa overlooking a secluded beach and we immediately wonder what might be buried under the palm tree or weighted down at the bottom of the ocean. A sun-dappled European city has us looking past the landmarks and museums for what might be lurking in the narrow alleys. The contrast between the light and shade of human nature is never so stark as when played out in the most seductive of settings, the kind of places where people come to relax and forget their cares. Two of my novels (my debut, The French Girl, and my most recent novel, How To Kill Your Best Friend) feature exactly that delicious contrast, and with that in mind, I bring you some suggestions for thrillers where the gorgeous settings almost steal the scene.

 

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Mongibello, San Remo, Rome, Venice, Greece: The locations in this novel read like a travel agent’s advertisement (though the first is admittedly fictional—Highsmith took inspiration for it from Positano, Italy). Readers will be captivated as the young, wealthy American trust fund socialites of the 1950s frolic through the radiant Italian Riviera, unaware of the twisted obsession growing in the heart of Tom Ripley. I discovered this novel in my teens and it awoke in me a longing (never quite lost) to travel to these beguiling destinations, where surely I would dress most fabulously to drink cocktails in the warm summer evenings at the bars of the most fashionable hotels and restaurants. . . . Highsmith unerringly captures the details of both the time and place, and it’s her depiction of the juxtaposition of the glorious sun-drenched locations with the darkness of the conniving, murder and betrayal carried out by our extraordinarily creepy antihero Tom that truly sets this novel apart. (Oh, and the 1999 movie, with Matt Damon as Tom and Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf, is excellent too.)

 

Pompeii by Robert Harris

The weather. The landscape. The opulent villas. The togas. Harris’ tautly accurate prose transports the reader to the heart of ancient Italy in the heat of late summer, with a tale of sleazy urban corruption, 79 A.D.-style, with a rigorously intelligent hydraulic engineer to guide us through it—all while trying to keep hold of both his integrity and his life. I defy any reader to finish this novel without a burning desire to immediately visit the ruins of Pompeii (though preferably without Vesuvius erupting at the time).

 

The Chalet by Catherine Cooper

Glamourous locales aren’t always warm: A luxury ski chalet in the snow-covered Alps also ticks the box (Champagne in front of the log fire, anyone?). Cooper’s descriptions of the beautiful, glacial landscape place the reader squarely inside a dual-timeline tale of twisted revenge spanning two decades.

 

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

The queen of crime and the original luxury train experience: It's a match made in exotically located thriller heaven that spans both hot and cold climes. The opening chapters are set in bustling Istanbul, before the action steams along to snow-covered Yugoslavia. With Poirot aboard, and the train itself providing the “locked room” setting, you know you are in for a treat.

 

Author photo © Nick James Photography.

How to Kill Your Best Friend author Lexie Elliott shares four thrillers set in gorgeous locations.

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