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Nikki Smith: Unpacking the attraction of destination thrillers

Nikki Smith: Unpacking the attraction of destination thrillers

I was in my early twenties when The Beach published back in 1996. Alex Garland’s book set on an idyllic island off Bangkok captured the zeitgeist of backpacking in your early twenties and dropping off the tourist trail. The novel sold millions and was made into a hugely successful film by Danny Boyle starring Leonardo DiCaprio, demonstrating the appetite for a genre that has become so popular, the numerous books that fall within it are now referred to as ‘destination thrillers’.

In the subsequent thirty years, the world has moved on. The advent of mobile phones and the internet has made the concept of finding a map giving the location of a secret island seem all but impossible. Google Maps and YouTube allow everyone, including authors, to travel the world and visit, albeit virtually, almost any destination, without ever leaving their sofa.

Covid and the pandemic intensified the demand for destination thrillers – writers turned to setting stories in luxurious destinations and exotic places because they weren’t able to travel, and readers were desperate to get their hands on these books for the same reason. When I wrote The Beach Party, I never actually thought about it being a destination thriller; Mallorca had simply been the last place I’d travelled to before lockdown with a group of friends I’d known since I was a teenager. I spent a lot of time looking at the photos I’d taken on that trip when sitting in my kitchen during 2021, unable to travel anywhere, and the story arose from that.

Destination thrillers balance the relatable with the aspirational. Lucy Clarke’s The Castaways and Ellery Lloyd’s The Club take ordinary people and put them in stunningly beautiful locations; a contrast to the darkness that lies within the characters themselves. The settings of these books then often become inaccessible for some reason – cut off by weather or isolated geographically to heighten the tension. More recently, novels like The Villa by Ruth Kelly or Freeze by Kate Simants have merged destination thrillers with the concept of reality TV, playing on the idea of contestants losing their lives one after another – a modern spin on the locked room mystery.

Some readers want to read about luxurious destinations purely for the escapism, but these tense and twisty books have also captured the zeitgeist of the moment which has resulted in a huge rise in their recent popularity. They allow the reader the chance to escape from the pressing issues and realities of living in the ‘real world’ and at the moment, considering the current cost of living crisis together with the ever-growing uncertain political landscape, both at home and abroad, the need to getaway can feel more urgent than ever.

Although destination thrillers fall within the commercial fiction genre, they can also tackle serious themes. When I wrote The Guests, I wanted the reader to not only be swept away to the luxury of the Maldives with some very unlikeable characters, but I also wanted to explore the environmental impact that long-haul travel and ignorant tourists can have in locations like this. Now covid restrictions have lifted and everyone is travelling again, we all need to be aware of the ecological impact we have when we visit these places if we want to ensure they remain accessible to future generations of readers and travellers.

The Guests by Nikki Smith (Penguin, £8.99) is out 23 May 2024

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