Foreign travel can pull us into the orbit of dangerous strangers, but it might also bring out our own dark side. Narrators who venture abroad sometimes slip the moorings of their daily existence and become “unreliable,” leading the reader—and others—astray. Kate Horsley draws suspense from the unkindness of strangers in The American Girl, in which an exchange student stumbles out of the woods near a French town. Barefoot and bloodied, her appearance creates a stir, especially since her host family has mysteriously disappeared. So is she an innocent abroad, or a diabolical killer intent on getting away with murder? Here, Horsley recommends five books in which travel bring out the worst in people.
The narrator of Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 imagines a cruise as the ultimate escape, but her time aboard a luxury yacht called the Aurora turns out to be anything but freeing. One night, Lo Blacklock hears a scream and realizes that the woman she saw in cabin 10 is no longer there. She feels compelled to investigate, but in doing so puts her own life in danger. The Aurora is alien territory, controlled by people who may themselves be implicated in a crime. As readers, we share Lo’s feeling that the cruise has become claustrophobic, but is her version of events to be believed or is Lo really the one with cabin fever? This creepy psychological thriller has strong echoes of Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock and kept me guessing until the end.
Studious teenager Su is sent to Magaluf by her mother to keep an eye on her wayward sister Leah. Straight away, she loses her bearings and abandons her normally sensible behavior as Leah draws her into a drink- and drug-fuelled night of partying. When Su wakes the next morning, the film someone took of her multiple sexual indiscretions is already online, and she feels she has no alternative but to go into hiding. Virally public ridicule and slut-shaming threaten to ruin Su’s life beyond repair, and she must find a way to cope with the fall-out. Viral is a tense thriller that explores serious and pressing themes, with sharp dialogue and darkly humorous scenes that carry the reader along at a cracking pace.
Peter Swanson’s novel is a slick, modern take on Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train. In The Kind Worth Killing, a traveler’s chance meeting becomes a scene of temptation in which hidden thoughts turn into chilling reality. Travel is a catalyst rather than a destination here: The two main characters, Ted and Lily, meet by chance in London’s Heathrow airport, where they await a delayed night flight to Boston. In this transitional space, “the rules are different.” The strangers lose their conversational inhibitions and begin revealing their darkest intentions. When Ted jokingly confesses that he sometimes feels like killing his cheating wife, Lily replies, “I think you should.” Swanson’s plot is deft and intricate, with twists and turns I never saw coming.
After committing a crime in the United States, Grace boards a plane to Europe, where she sets about refashioning herself in another novel that pays homage to Highsmith—in this case, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Grace lives in Paris for two years as Julie from California, her life conducted entirely in French—“another kind of disguise”. Even her alternative dream jobs become “another costume, a cover” as she puts the last touches on her “unbecoming”. In this richly realized caper novel, Rebecca Scherm peels back Grace’s layers to show the past hurts that have made her long for affection and security until we understand what has trapped her in the flux of the present. Unbecoming is a suspenseful story of fake antiques, theft, and betrayal, in which the protagonist weaves a complex web of deception.
Three young people go to Australia to try to find a better life away from the Irish recession. As they struggle to survive in backpacker hostels and remote farms, they find that it takes a long time to adapt—not just to the harsh conditions of the outback but to the travelling life of scrounging and isolation in “a country that was mostly nowhere to us.” E.M. Reapy’s book is full of the itinerant worker’s worst nightmares—a friend left behind in the outback, murder, falling victim to sex trafficking—and she creates a gripping and moving sense of the inner darkness that never leaves these characters, however far they run.
Kate Horsley is the author of The American Girl, William Morrow/Killer Reads, Summer 2016, a novel inspired by her own foreign misadventures. Her first novel, The Monster’s Wife, was shortlisted for the Scottish First Book of the Year Award and her poems and short fiction have been published in a number of magazines and anthologies including Best British Crime Stories. She lives in Manchester with her artist husband, John, and a small person called Violet and goes on holiday as often as possible.