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Ruth Kelly: Why islands make great settings for thrillers

Ruth Kelly: Why islands make great settings for thrillers

Authors have been using islands as locations for thrillers for decades. Agatha Christie started the craze with And Then There Were None and the obsession hasn’t let up since.

Island thrillers pull you in like the tide. It’s the simmering threat of what lies beneath the surface, reeling readers in like the catch of the day. The dichotomy of how paradise can also be hell, is enthralling, because, if you’re not safe in paradise, where are you safe?

Long stretched out beaches with white sand appear warm and inviting by day but come darkness, they make the perfect crime scene. A body washed up on shore.

Rocky paths lined with wild flowers and cliff tops with ocean views can also be deadly. One missed step, or, one hard shove, and you could be plunging to your death.

Calm waters can suddenly turn choppy and hostile, with currents strong enough to drag you under. Bright blue skies and searing heat can become unrelenting and suffocating.

The weather can turn from scorching to stormy on a dime leaving the island cut off from the rest of the world and a small cast of characters, alone, with a killer on the loose.

Instead of being able to switch off and relax, they must stay alert. Stay alive. Second guessing each other, or the closed community they’re stranded with while they wait to be rescued. The sense of time running out is often a key tool for any writer wanting to crack up the tension.

The island often becomes a character in its own right, setting the mood, the tone. This was very much my intention when I wrote the Villa. I wanted my private island of Aruna to almost be alive. Both a friend and an enemy to The Villa contestants. Not someone to be trusted.

From above, the white sands, horseshoe bays and sparkling azure blue sea appear inviting, but scratch the surface and you’ll find something dark and sinister.

Aruna is work of fiction but I did draw my inspiration from a real island in paradise I used to visit when I was young.

I spent my childhood in tropical countries and had the great fortune of growing up in Papua New Guinea. I remember it as unruly, Jurassic, the land that time forgot, or at least it felt that way through a seven-year-old’s eyes.

Through various connections, my family made friends with someone who ran day trips to a small private island off the south coast called Loloata.

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My childhood memories are as hazy as the midday heat but I can still vividly picture the exotic vegetation, the rugged terrain, the island shaped like the back of a lion. The purest ocean, to this day, I’ve ever seen in my life. Sea mottled blue and emerald, the light dancing across the surface, sparking like precious stones. Flat as a mirror except for the jumping fish breaking through. A single rough wood jetty that stretched into the ocean. I’ll never forget the starfish covering the sea bed. Thousands of them, a universe of little red and orange stars.

But, beneath the dazzling beauty lurked danger. The Coral Sea that surrounded Loloata was known as a hunting ground to Great White and tiger sharks. It didn’t stop my mum though; she always threw caution to the wind and would spend hours floating in the warm waters.

The end of the day was always marked by the most breath-taking sunset. A huge red sun, slung low. The sky, set alight in a blaze of reds and oranges.

We’d set off from the jetty in a rickety old boat that shook and juddered with a whirring engine that was so noisy, I could barely hear what my parents were saying.

As I turned back to face Loloata, as I watched the island disappear into the horizon, I remember always feeling quietly relieved we weren’t spending the night there. Despite its beauty, there was something about the isolation – the vastness, the darkening sea and sky, the thought of what I knew lurked beneath the surface of the ocean – that unnerved me.

Ruth Kelly’s The Villa is published by Pan on 22 June 2023

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