Ten Thrillers with Transportive Settings
I am never happier than when I’m traveling with a notebook: traveling and writing are my two favorite things, and the fact that I’m able to combine them makes me very happy indeed. There is no feeling quite as wonderful as being in a new place with a story in your head, looking around, fitting the plot and characters into their surroundings. It’s the smells, the sounds, the little details that make all the difference.
As a reader, there’s nothing I like more than a thriller. I love that feeling of being blindsided by a plot twist. And if I’m transported to a vivid and exciting setting at the same time? Even better. These are ten of my favorite thrillers with spellbinding settings:
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
This stunning book is set in Cornwall, at the westernmost edge of England. I read it for the first time shortly before moving here, and its intensity and creepiness were totally absorbing (happily, my life in Cornwall has not been as disastrous as the second Mrs. de Winter’s). It is a book with an unnamed protagonist who is swept off her feet by an older widower, then plunged into her predecessor’s life. Du Maurier plays ruthlessly with the reader’s sympathies. One of its morals is: you can probably manage all right without a housekeeper.
- Acqua Alta by Donna Leon
Venice is one of my favorite places in the world; I would live there if I could and walk the alleys all day long, stopping every now and then to look at art. Donna Leon does live there, and she has written many thrillers set in the city, featuring the fabulous Commissario Brunetti. She expertly contrasts the picture-postcard nature of the impossibly beautiful city with its dark underside. I love all her books: I’ve picked this one because it was the first one I read, when my thriller-loving aunt gave me a copy.
- Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong
I have never been to Shanghai, but this book makes me feel as if I were there in the nineties. A body is discovered in a canal by two friends; it belongs to a young woman who was a “national model worker,” which makes her death a political matter. Chief Inspector Chen Cao’s investigation is blocked at every turn. A detective story that illuminates a Communist China in transition, it’s full of stunning descriptions of fascinating locales, cramped apartments, and delicious food.
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
This is one of my best books of all time, partly because its world is so utterly immersive. Merricat, the unreliable narrator, lives in a big old house in small-town New England with her sister Connie and Uncle Julian, the rest of her family all having died of arsenic poisoning six years ago. Shunned by the village people, they live by their own rules. Merricat pulls the reader straight into her queasy, compelling universe. Shirley Jackson is a wonderful author and, as in Rebecca, the setting of the creepy house is unforgettable.
- Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens
Set at Cambridge University over a snowy Christmas in the 1930s, this is an Agatha Christie-esque book with feminism and diversity—and, it’s actually a detective story for children (and beyond; I’m delighted to have a child who is the right age to give me an excuse to read it!). In the book, Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, the Detective Society, are staying at the university over Christmas with Daisy’s older brother, and before they know it, there’s been a murder. . .
- Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola
The city of Paris is a character in its own right in this early psychological thriller. It’s a masterpiece of its kind: Paris in the 18th century is painted as a queasy, grimy place that hosts queasy, grimy goings-on. If anything, Zola captures it slightly too brilliantly to make for easy reading: it’s a huge, horrible page-turner.
- Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
This is a proper classic. I love books set on trains very much indeed, and this is, in my opinion, the best of them all. Nasty Mr. Ratchett is murdered while the train is halted by a snowdrift in Croatia. Poirot, who has boarded in Istanbul, is in the next cabin. Twelve people have motives and means. This is a locked-room mystery with scenery and it’s a joyous read.
- Snowdrops by A.D. Miller
A thriller set in Moscow in the nineties: the snowdrops of the title are bodies that are buried over the winter and emerge to be discovered in spring. This is the story of Nicholas, a flawed Englishman who meets a Russian woman, Masha, and her sister, Katya, and finds himself enmeshed in something altogether sinister. This book hurtles toward a conclusion that feels horribly inevitable, all against a vivid backdrop of the Russian underworld as Nicholas overrides his own misgivings again and again and again.
- The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
This is a thriller in a looser sense, but the sense of place and suspense are incredible. The setting here is a distant planet, the protagonist a vicar who has been sent there at the behest of the planet’s original inhabitants. There is a passage in which he first goes out to walk in his new home that I use to teach students about writing place because it is impeccable. This book is a bit of everything: it’s literary, thrilling, sci-fi, and entirely captivating. I slowed down my reading as the end approached because I couldn’t bear the fact that it was going to end.
- Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg
A breathtaking and icy read, this classic Scandinavian thriller is set in Copenhagen. I read it when it came out 25 years ago, and it has aged well. Its unconventional protagonist, Smilla, is a bit of an outsider, an expert in snow and ice. Her six-year-old neighbor, Isaiah, is, like Smilla, from Greenland. When he falls to his death from the roof of their building, Smilla is the only one who, reading the footprints he left, doesn’t think it was an accident. She starts to uncover a conspiracy and the stakes get higher and higher, until the story ends up in the icy waters off the coast of Greenland. This book makes me feel very cold indeed.
Emily Barr began her career as a journalist at the Guardian before realizing that she was more drawn toward books. After taking a year to go backpacking for a column assignment, she returned home with the idea for her first book, Backpack, and never looked back. She has since written eleven other books for adults. The One Memory of Flora Banks is her young-adult debut. Emily lives in Cornwall with her partner and their children. Follow her on Twitter @emily_barr.