Saturday, 23 July 2022

Dark Deeds in Sun-drenched Places by Lexie Elliott


We’re an odd bunch, thriller writers. We don’t so much look at the world sideways as from the bottom up, through the lens of whatever we imagine might lie beneath. Sophisticated sun-kissed European cities have me eying the dark shadows of the back alleys, where tourists seldom dare to venture, and I can’t stumble across the sight of a beautiful waterfront villa without wondering what’s lurking in the damp basement or what horrors might be discovered if the river was dredged. One can speculate that Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and M. M. Kaye’s Death In… series, along with numerous exotically-set Agatha Christie mysteries, had more of an impact on my teenaged psyche than I appreciated at the time, but I’ve always been utterly fascinated by tales of darkness that play out in the light: is there anything more seductive than a murderous plot conducted in a glamorous care-free location complete with sun-drenched days and hot, sultry nights? 

My latest novel, How to Kill Your Best Friend, is set in just such an environment: a luxury resort on a remote island in Southeast Asia. Setting is so very important to me that on any new project it can almost become a character in itself, and it’s usually the first thing that comes to mind. I’ll be pondering potential ideas and find myself dwelling on a certain location, and an accompanying sense of atmosphere—it’s as if I need to know the where before I can find the characters that inhabit that landscape. However, How to Kill Your Best Friend entirely bucked that trend: the title came to me first, and it was so strong that I couldn’t ignore it; I found myself in the unfamiliar position of working backwards from it. That title threw up so many questions: why would anyone even consider killing their best friend? What must have happened in the past between these friends? How did they get to this extreme point? From mulling those questions, the central relationship quickly unfolded, based around three women (Georgie, Lissa and Bronwyn) who met and bonded through their university swim team—a very convenient shared passion for me to gift them, I must confess, as I myself have a long history of competitive swimming and thus the research was already ticked off. It’s Lissa’s death that brings the friendship group back together; we see the tale through the eyes of Georgie and Bronwyn, who each have their own reasons for questioning how a champion swimmer such as Lissa could possibly have drowned. With the beginnings of a cast of characters in mind, the question of setting reared its head: where would this tale play out? 

At the time, I happened to be on vacation at, erm, a remote resort on an island in Southeast Asia—I’m sure you can connect the dots—and in truth the idea of a resort setting was instantly captivating, not least of all because it made sense logistically for the swimming and the drowning aspects. Perhaps conditioned by my teenage reading material, I could also see distinct possibilities in the juxtaposition of the terrible ordeals the characters undergo with the glamorous luxury setting: the contrast of the darkness and shade of human nature is never so stark as when played out in an environment where people expect to relax and forget their cares. Whilst not precisely a “locked room” scenario, the resort location provides both physical and mental isolation for the characters: physical, in the sense that they are all geographically removed from their ordinary lives and, moreover, spread out across different villas within the resort; and mental, in the sense that the distance and the time zone difficulties cut them off from contact with their usual support systems, leaving them truly alone with their increasingly anxious thoughts. In addition, once the weather turns ominous on the island and the staff begin to melt away, for all its supposed luxury the resort becomes something of a prison that the characters can’t escape. How many of us have taken the back seat on the organisation of a vacation, leading to the uncomfortable realisation that you have very little idea of where you are and even less idea of what to do if catastrophe strikes? Have you ever found yourself thinking: where, exactly, is the airport, and how might one get there if there were no hotel staff around to help? If you haven’t, you surely will now.

As I write this, I’ve already finished the bulk of the work on my next novel (Bright and Deadly Things, which will be coming out in 2023), and I’m beginning to cast around for ideas for my next project. Unfortunately, we’re going on a beach-based island resort holiday this summer, so I can’t rely on that for any fresh inspiration. Though I will at least make sure I know where I am, and how to get to the airport…

How To Kill Your Best Friend by Lexie Elliott (Atlantic Books) Out Now

The perfect getaway - to get away with murder...Georgie, Lissa and Bronwyn have been best friends since they met on their college swimming team. Now Lissa is dead - drowned off the coast of the remote island where her second husband owns a luxury resort. But could a star open-water swimmer really have drowned? Or is something more sinister going on?Brought together for Lissa's memorial, Georgie, Bron, Lissa's grieving husband and their friends find themselves questioning the circumstances around Lissa's death - and each other. As the weather turns ominous, trapping the guests on the island, it slowly dawns on them that Lissa's death was only the beginning. Nobody knows who they can trust. Or if they'll make it off the island alive...

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