Agatha Christie found And Then There Were None, her story of 10 strangers invited to an island off the Devon coast, her hardest book to write. “I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been,” she wrote in her autobiography. But Christie’s struggles failed to put off future crime writers: from PD James’s The Lighthouse to, more recently, Lucy Foley’s The Guest List, the charms of a closed, dangerous setting, where everyone is a suspect, are just too tempting for mystery novelists.
This July, we have two crackers on offer in what I’ll call island noir. First up is Chris Brookmyre’s The Cliff House (Little, Brown, £18.99, pp352), which sends Jen off to a remote Scottish island for her hen party, accompanied by her best friends and her future sister-in-law. “Many of them didn’t know each other, one of them didn’t know anybody, including Jen, one of them quite possibly hated her, and two of them definitely hated each other. What could possibly go wrong?” They are the only guests at the luxury resort, but from the famous pop star to her estranged former best friend everyone here has a nasty little secret. When one of the party disappears, those remaining are told they need to confess or she’ll die. There’s no way off the island, no wifi, no signal. Brookmyre is always a class act and it is a pleasure to be back in the hands of one of our best crime writers with this clever, propulsive thriller with a whole lot of heart.
Sarah Pearse gave us a chilly locked-room mystery in her bestselling debut, The Sanatorium. Her follow-up, The Retreat (Bantam Press, £14.99, pp368), continues the story of her troubled detective, Elin, this time investigating the death of a young woman at an eco-wellness retreat on an island off the – nod to Christie alert – coast of Devon. There are all sorts of terrible backstories to enjoy here, from the serial killer who once stalked the island’s paths to the eerie old school that used to stand there. Things go from bad to worse, the bodies pile up and, just like Brookmyre’s crew, eventually there’s no way to leave. This is, for my money, a better-crafted thriller than The Sanatorium and I can’t help but cheer for an author who ramps up the creepiness at every turn: Elin picks up “on something scorched about the island, a strange stillness that seems unnatural somehow, malevolent”.
There is another island on offer in Alex Marwood’s The Island of Lost Girls (Sphere, £18.99, pp480), but this time, the fictional La Kastellana is drenched in the Mediterranean sun. Moving between 1985, as 12-year-old Mercedes sees her traditional, often cruel world change after the arrival on the island of the super-rich Matthew Meade and his young daughter Tatiana, and 2016, as Robin comes to La Kastellana to search for her missing teenager, Gemma, this thriller travels to some very dark places: missing girls, cruel traditions, abusive fathers. Where it shines brightest, though, is in its insightful, compassionate depiction of the difficult relationship between Robin and Gemma.
Robin is pushed to the limits of what she can bear. So, too, are the women in the following three “revenge” thrillers. In Polly Phillips’s gripping The Reunion (Simon & Schuster, £8.99, pp352), Emily has not been the same after the trauma of what happened to her at Cambridge. She has a husband and twins and has tried to move on, but when the chance comes to go to her college’s 15-year reunion, she decides it’s time to make the people who shamed her pay. We know things aren’t going to go entirely smoothly – The Reunion opens with Emily being strangled – but Phillips slowly reveals what happened to her and unpicks what she believes to be true.
Scarlett Brade’s protagonist, Charlotte, in her debut, The Hive (Zaffre, £18.99, pp400), is out for a different kind of revenge. This lively, shocking debut opens as Charlotte makes an Instagram Live broadcast to thousands on gossip site the Hive: she wants them to know the truth about what her ex-boyfriend Linc did to her. Once she’s told them what really happened, they’ll vote in an online poll: should Linc live or die? “Who else is voting die just to see if she really does it? #CharlotteUnhinged,” clamour those who are watching. The Hive slows in pace a little in the middle but, overall, it’s a fresh, modern take on the revenge story.
Chelsea G Summers’s antiheroine, Dorothy Daniels, in A Certain Hunger (Faber, £8.99, pp240) is something else entirely. Imagine American Psycho, but Patrick Bateman is a woman – and also eats her victims. Dorothy is a food critic and a serial killer. She’s also in prison. This is her take on herself: “You who call women the fairer sex, you may repress and deny all you want, but some of us were born with a howling void where our souls should sway. I am a psychopath.” A Certain Hunger won’t be to everyone’s, er, tastes; while Dorothy is often blackly funny, she is also exhausting and spending a lot of time in her head is an intense experience. But I’ve never read anything like this and if you’re game for a cannibalistic narrator who describes what she’s doing in rather too much detail, then I’d urge you to give it a try.￼
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