'Murder on the Orient Express' and Other Thrillers With Inescapable Settings
Hours of Criminal Minds reruns and countless readings of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries have me constantly thinking about how to escape from even the most banal of situations—where’s my exit, what items can be used as weapons, how fast can I move. It’s a fun mental game that I play, but few things shut it down it like a contained setting. Nothing heightens fear, quickens breath, and sends blood racing like being cornered. Whether it’s by handcuffs, threats from a crazed killer, or personal choice, these 7 novels focus on characters who are utterly and completely trapped. Claustrophobic readers beware, these books feature no way out.
Your little grey cells will need to shift into overdrive to keep up with Hercule Poirot’s shrewd observations as he attempts to solve one of Agatha Christie’s most well-known mysteries. Shortly after boarding the Orient Express in Istanbul, detective Poirot meets Mr. Ratchett, a sinister-looking American who believes his life is in danger. Turns out he was right: On the second night, Ratchett is murdered in his car. With the train stopped and the murderer still onboard, Poirot has to act fast. But how do you narrow down a list of suspects when every single one has a viable motive for murder? Adapted into film, television, and even video games, Murder on the Orient Express is a classic that must be read by any lover of suspense, as well as those who love a closed set.
The word backwoods strikes instant terror into my heart. Years of horror films, novels, and television shows have taught me many lessons, the first one being: Never, ever drive through deserted backwoods roads, and—if you must—never enter a creepy backwoods house. Unfortunately, the characters in House don’t listen to common sense. They enter the house, and get trapped inside by a crazed maniac who claims he killed God and wants them to eliminate one of their own before he considers letting them go. Just a theory—he’s probably not letting them go.
Having once run with the likes of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, Richard Laymon suffered a decline in popularity in the U.S. around 1980—due in part, many think, to a poorly edited version of The Woods are Dark. Thankfully, in 2008, his daughter had the book rereleased with all of the uncut, gory, gruesome, and demented details that occur when stranglers are shackled to trees and left to await the arrival of unknown, wild creatures.
Want to read a tale thrilling enough to inspire the Master of Suspense? Cornell Woolrich’s short story, “It Had to be Murder,” was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s Academy Award-winning Rear Window. While the film fleshes out the plot, characters, and adds Hitchcock’s signature style, the short story serves as a suspenseful reminder that terror doesn’t need to be set in a spooky location, sometimes the most unspeakable horrors can be experienced while trapped in the role of an observer, unable to intervene.
If hospitals already give you the heebie jeebies, we recommend skipping Kelly Parsons’ gripping read of a killer loose in those white, sanitized walls. Poised for a coveted position, chief resident Steve Mitchell’s life turns into a nightmare when his patient mysteriously dies. Facing suspicion, he races to uncover the truth behind the sociopath who’s killing his way through Boston’s University Hospital.
The killer could leave at any time, but there’s little fun in that. The greater endgame is Mitchell, and this madman has secrets that could ruin his future and destroy his family. This killer isn’t enjoying the murders themselves so much as watching Mitchell squirm. The two willingly keep themselves in the hospital, each trying to stay one step ahead of the other right until the very end.
Stephen King is no stranger to a single-setting story: The majority of The Shining takes place at the Overlook Hotel, and Misery is mostly set in Annie Wilkes’ home, but neither are quite as contained as Gerald’s Game. A romantic romp, accented with a kinky pair of handcuffs, used to be a fun game for Jessie and Gerald. This time, something is different. When Gerald ignores her protests, Jessie kicks him off of her and he cracks his head. Jessie, still handcuffed to the bed, realizes quickly that no one will be coming to check on their secluded cabin in the woods. Trapped, Jessie begins having horrific hallucinations of a dog feeding on her husband’s body and a deformed apparition that she begins to call The Space Cowboy. It’s a terrifying look at a mind devolving at an alarming rate—as well as yet another reminder to never go camping anywhere secluded.
A list of one-setting thrillers would be incomplete without a good haunted house. Considered to be one of the greatest ghost stories of the 20th century, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a complex and jarring journey. Four characters explore the violent history of Hill House and, while all experience unexplained—possibly supernatural—events, none are more affected than Eleanor. The story, brilliantly crafted, forces the reader to question whether the characters are haunted by spirits, or simply victims of their own psyches. As the house begins to take possession of Eleanor, the group knows time is short and they make their escape.
Many stories on this list feature killers—all of whom can be seen, distracted, or attacked. Escaping is difficult, but not impossible. Facing down spirits is much different, an unfortunate fact that the characters of Hill House must face. Eleanor’s car crashes before she can leave the grounds, leaving the reader to wonder if she had been disturbed all along and finally ended her life, or if the house refused to ever let her leave.
If you liked this, we recommend signing up for the Bookish newsletter! Once a week, you'll get the best spam-free and book-filled editorial content.