While foreign borders are only slowly opening up, books that feature a strong sense of place still offer one of the next best alternatives to an actual trip. Mysteries, in particular, can capture a whole world—from the moors of Yorkshire to the souks of Marrakech—and their settings often emerge as a central character rivaling any protagonist.
This means that mysteries deliver more than simply armchair travel. The best of them can also serve as travel guides to your first post-pandemic trip, featuring tips on where to go and what to see.
Agatha Christie is my travel agent
The classic mystery writer Agatha Christie helped establish the form. Her mysteries do double duty as both masterfully plotted whodunits and English travel guides.
Her Miss Marple, the super sleuth who stars in 12 of Christie’s novels, isn’t a solo act. She comes fully attached to her fictional home of St. Mary Mead, an English village pared down to basics. There is a church, a pub, a row of cottages, and a stately manor. The village is so fully evoked it’s easy to map, and Christie, doing exactly that, offers a line drawing of the hamlet’s high street in her first Marple mystery, Death at the Vicarage. This is our romance of a quintessentially tweedy, downright twee English village, vivid enough to seduce any Anglophile hoping for a classic British jaunt.
(Agatha Christie’s adventurous “second act” plays out in Mesopotamia.)
Taking advantage of Christie’s pastoral muse, national tourism agency Visit England offers a self-guided itinerary through South Devon and the English Riviera that maps the locations of 20 of Christie’s mysteries, including the backroads that helped shape her vision of St. Mary Mead.
And her novels don’t just offer tips for country trips. In At Bertram's Hotel, one of Christie’s more urban mysteries, Marple’s stay at an imposing London hotel features a capital tour that travelers can mimic.
Talented Mr. Ripley’s Italy
For many mystery writers, though, the setting isn't just a study in local color. Patricia Highsmith’s very dark first Ripley novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, offers a classic tour of Italy, from Naples to Rome and Venice. But this is more than an evocative portrait of late 1950s, Felliniesque la dolce vita.
As the sociopath Ripley assumes the affluent, glamorous identity of the man he murdered, his Italy turns more opulent and sleek. The climax happens in his ultimate destination—a grand but slowly crumbling 200-year-old palazzo approachable only by gondola, backing onto a ruined garden, and staffed by two servants who “knew the difference between a Bloody Mary and a crème de menthe frappé.” The increasingly high style, the shady road trip, and the decaying palazzo mirror Ripley’s own twisted social climbing ambitions and crumbling brain. They are his sad, very boozy doppelgangers.
Gothic settings from Scotland to Mexico
Attica Locke’s 2009 The Cutting Season also uses the setting as a reflection of its protagonists, and delivers a history lesson too. The antebellum Louisiana plantation of Belle Vie, which anchors the novel, has been turned into a tourist sideshow after its owners open the doors to the manor and the original slave quarters. But when the body of a migrant worker is uncovered on the grounds, and the ghosts of the formerly enslaved come haunting, Belle Vie evolves into a meditation on antebellum oppression and the kind of historic crimes that can’t be erased.
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Some current mysteries, though, use the setting more simply, to infuse plot with horror. Few writers do palpably sinister backdrops better than Gillian Flynn. The grim midwestern town that anchors Sharp Objects reads like an American Gothic nightmare. The scene of the novel’s multiple murders, Flynn writes, is “one of those crummy towns prone to misery. An explosion at the silo or a toddler down a well.” When a body appears wedged between the hardware store and beauty parlor, the ghoulish discovery seems almost inevitable.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia also deftly sets a menacing scene in her Mexican Gothic. Trapped in High Place, a rural Mexican mansion, the novel’s newlywed heroine has to escape her seemingly homicidal husband and the haunted house itself. The result is a Latin counterpoint to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and High Place another take on Manderley’s macabre jailhouse of a manor.
Further north, no one does Nordic noir as well as Camilla Läckberg, whose mysteries center around the remote, briney fishing port of Fjällbacka, sitting on Sweden’s western coast. So many fans have been drawn to the village that the town offers regular Camilla Läckberg Murder Mystery Tours.
Yet mysteries driven by scene-stealing settings that move the plot forward sometimes offer the best vicarious trips of all. Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party sweeps the reader along on a photogenic trip through the Scottish Highlands. But the beauty of the setting also serves as a key to the mystery itself.
“I loved the idea,” says Foley, “of taking these characters—Londoners, used to their creature comforts—and putting them somewhere outside that comfort zone. It’s nature red in tooth and claw, and it’s absolutely essential to the plot since the characters’ actions are driven by their isolation and claustrophobia.”
The glamorous setting of the French Alps in Ruth Ware’s One by One adds a similarly central plot point. Pinned in their Alpine ski resort by an avalanche, no one can escape the psychopath who picks them off, true to the title, one by one.
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It may be a puzzle to divine whodunit in most of these mysteries, but it’s easy enough to plan a trip to the French Alps or the Scottish Highlands, drawing on the novels’ settings. And ultimately your self-guided tour will offer one big improvement on the literary one: You probably won’t stumble across any random corpses.
Raphael Kadushin is an award-winning food and travel journalist. He is also the editor of three travel anthologies, and his work has appeared in the annual Best Food Writing anthology.