Conflict lies at the heart of all mystery and suspense, and what could be more conflicting than taking a trip to paradise only to get caught up in the dark and deadly underbelly you didn’t know was there? Imagine your favorite or most desired vacation mecca, somewhere beautiful, maybe even exotic, somewhere you feel relaxed and have fun, somewhere you can escape from the humdrum of everyday life, somewhere you might call your happy place. Now imagine it with a homicidal killer on the loose, with bodies piling up like waves on a beach, with someone who perhaps wants you dead. Or perhaps Mother Nature is about to release her greatest fury. This tantalizing juxtaposition makes for thrilling, nail-biting tension that can keep you glued to, and turning, the pages.
One of my favorite paradises is Door County, Wisconsin. It’s a peninsula dotted with islands at its tip, sandwiched between Green Bay and Lake Michigan. The area is known for its lighthouses, quaint lakeside towns, laid-back lifestyle, and majestic natural beauty. We visit it often and the sight of waves crashing onto the shore, jagged cliffs rising up from the water, and beautiful rock-strewn beaches always leaves me feeling relaxed and happy. Yet this gorgeous vacation spot has a waterway known as Death’s Door because hundreds of ships have sunk there. Horrific storms can blow in off the lake in the blink of an eye, bringing gale winds, slashing rain, or maybe ice and snow. Danger and darkness are never far away.
My other favorite vacation spot is Nags Head in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My sisters and I gather there yearly in a condo located on the beach. The sounds, sights, and smells of the ocean soothe my soul. It’s a restorative effect that leaves me peaceful, content, and happy with life. Yet when I walk the beach after high tide and see some of the ugly things that have washed ashore—spiny puffer fish, horseshoe crabs, bizarre-looking jelly fish—I’m reminded of the potential terror lurking beneath those waves. Walking that same beach at night to take in an amazing skyful of stars, I’m keenly aware of how the crashing waves might obscure the sound of someone coming up from behind me, how the darkness is denser than what I’m used to, how the sand dunes provide the perfect lurking spot. What if…?
That question is at the heart of my Monster Hunter Mystery series. In the first book, A Death in Door County, the vacation mecca is my own happy place, Door County, Wisconsin. And the title says it all, well, almost all. The deaths here aren’t your everyday standard murders, rather they appear to be at the hands—or rather the teeth—of a giant aquatic monster lurking in Lake Michigan and cruising along the lovely, serene beaches of Door County. The protagonist, Morgan, is a cryptozoologist hired to find the truth. Is there a Loch Ness-type creature in the lake? The second book in the series, Death in the Dark Woods (pub date 12/12/23) takes place along the shores of Lake Superior among the picturesque Apostle Islands, and in the thickly wooded forests of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest near the quaint lakeside town of Bayfield, Wisconsin. We’ve vacationed there several times. It’s a hugely popular vacation spot and the place Morgan visits when she goes hunting for a homicidal Bigfoot.
As for other perilous paradises, as I mentioned above, I’ve visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina every year and author Alicia Bessette does a splendid job of turning this bit of oceanside paradise and laid-back lifestyles on its head. Her mystery Smile Beach Murder and its follow-up, Murder on Mustang Beach, feature a plucky but not always lucky protagonist, Callie, who has a penchant for finding trouble and a knack for solving murders. She also has a knack for setting herself up as the next potential victim and it’s only through her wits and savvy that she manages to solve the crimes. Waterside communities, whether they’re seaside or lakeside, have their own unique personalities and Bessette makes the most of this charming location and its quirky denizens.
Speaking of seaside locations, how about a honeymoon gone wrong? Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman is a story about a couple whose honeymoon trip to a resort in the tropical paradise of Bora Bora comes with some surprising consequences. They make a horrifying discovery, but one that comes with an unexpected bonus that promises to be a good thing. Or is it? Steadman deftly explores the morally ambiguous nature of people while exposing how the baggage—both literal and figurative—on this trip comes packed with thrilling possibilities, deadly secrets, and clever contrivances. That “something in the water” launches the couple to exciting new heights only to then drop them into a dizzying death spiral.
When it comes to mystical paradises, what could be more lovely and romantic than an isolated island off the coast of Ireland, replete with misty mornings and seaside cliffs? This is the setting for The Guest List by Lucy Foley, which highlights a wealthy and influential couple that has decided to hold their wedding on the island. After all, the scenery is hauntingly beautiful, and the isolated site is a perfect spot for the bridal party and their list of elite guests, the quintessential place to enjoy a restful, celebratory retreat. Everything has been planned down to the finest detail to guarantee that perfection, but then someone turns up perfectly dead and suddenly the isolated beauty of the island starts to feel more like a death trap.
The Vacation by M.M. Chouinard is a crisp, haunting tale about a Thanksgiving dinner gone terribly wrong. Extended family members can be a recipe for high drama in anyone’s book but a Thanksgiving retreat to a seaside villa in Jamaica turns especially ugly for one family when dark secrets rise to the surface like fat in the turkey gravy. This is gripping psychological suspense at its best, liberally sprinkled with red herrings and gut-wrenching twists. Family dynamics never looked so complex or horrifying.
The Club by Ellery Lloyd is a not-so-subtle lesson on the dangers of excess, lies, and deceptive media. The fun starts when two brothers buy an isolated island where the only access road is underwater half the day due to ocean tides. Then they build a luxurious, well-guarded “home” there – a retreat for anyone desperate to escape the paparazzi. They plan a big 3-day opening celebration and invite an elite group of rich, entitled people, the A-listers of A-listers, people eager to have their every whim cared for, and their deep, dark secrets kept under wraps. Mix in some supporting characters whose ethical principles are on a sliding scale and you end up with a lot more fireworks than the original plan called for.
And finally, Megan Miranda comes up with the perfect recipe for riveting suspense in a twisty tale that uses the clash of class in The Last House Guest. Start with a vacation enclave in Maine where the wealthy visit their lofty summer homes perched along the picturesque coastline in the town of Littleport. Toss in the folks who live in Littleport year-round and rely upon the summer visitors for their livelihood, folks generally expected to be seen but not heard by the wealthy elite. Mix in a rare friendship between two women—one from each side of this social strata—and have one of them die mysteriously. Add a dash of small-town secrets and class divide. Then hold onto your seat for a rollercoaster ride of revelations, plot twists, and riveting suspense.
Perils in paradise are aplenty and I love the way talented authors deftly toy with a reader’s emotions by using this contrast. I promise you, if you read enough of these books, you’ll never look at your vacations quite the same way again.