Alex Michaelides on His Top Five Island Thrillers
Since his phenomenal bestselling debut thriller The Silent Patient, Alex Michaelides has entertained readers with a literary mystery revolving around Cambridge classicists and secret societies in our former Thriller of the Month, The Maidens. His latest, The Fury, published in February 2024, pays riveting homage to the great Queen of Crime's And Then There Were None, as a film star throws a highly exclusive gathering on a private Greek island. In this exclusive piece, Alex recommends his other five favourite closed-circle thrillers that take full advantage of an island setting.
An island-set thriller is a particular favourite subject of mine. I’m struggling to know what to call it, exactly – is it a trope, or a sub-genre? Whatever it is, the template, as far as I can tell, was set by Agatha Christie in And Then There Were None – which contained everything we have come to expect from an island thriller: an isolated location, trapped characters, a murder and a closed circle of suspects.
Each subsequent generation of writers has attempted to take on Christie’s challenge and respond to this masterpiece in their own way. I am no exception. Agatha Christie has been a major inspiration to me ever since I read her books as a teenager, growing up in Cyprus. In many ways, my first novel, The Silent Patient, was inspired by Five Little Pigs – probably my favourite novel of hers. And my new novel The Fury is my response to And Then There Were None.
The Fury is my first island thriller – but I doubt it will be my last. It’s an enjoyable form to take on, with such strict parameters; a truly exciting imaginative exercise. What I tried to do in The Fury was take the expectations a reader brings to a book like this – and then subvert them. I had more fun writing it than anything else I’ve written. It was important to me not simply to rehash what Christie had already done, but to turn the same ingredients inside out, and put a fresh spin on what might appear to be a familiar story. Hopefully I succeeded.
These, in no particular order, are my favourite island thrillers. I’d be lying if I said they hadn’t all inspired me one way or another.
Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie
Although And Then There Were None is the first, and undoubtably the best plotted, I have a lot more affection for Christie’s second island-set novel – Evil Under the Sun. The plot is more complicated and somewhat bizarre, and therefore less successful, but I think the characters are stronger – and so is the atmosphere. Set on fictional Smuggler’s Island, off the coast of Devon, the island is powerfully evoked. I will always remember the image of sunbathers lying like dead bodies on a beach. It also contains one of Christie’s characteristic love triangles, and one of her best. She persuades us to view the triangle between tragic Arlena Marshall and her two men in one way all the way through the novel, before flipping it brilliantly on its head. It also has Poirot, which And Then There Were None necessarily does not. If he’d been on the island, the crime would not have remained unsolved.
The Magus by John Fowles
I was about sixteen years old when I read The Magus for the first time. I was captivated by the mystery and the vivid Greek-island setting. I also responded to the deep undercurrent of paranoia in the book, as Nicholas, a cynical English teacher, falls under the spell of Mr Conchis, the mysterious Greek millionaire, with his stories and apparently successful experiments in hypnotism and magic. But is this really magical realism – or is Nicholas actually the subject of a cruel and manipulative series of mind-games? The suspense goes back and forth, and remains powerfully gripping throughout.
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
I love this book. It contains the kind of twist that is a visceral, physical punch in the gut, spinning the entire story upside down, forcing you to re-evaluate everything you have taken for granted until that point. Ostensibly it’s about a US Marshall who investigates the disappearance of a psychiatric patient in a prison asylum on a small island. But as his investigation proceeds, something doesn’t feel right – until the twist confirms our suspicion in a way you never anticipate. The imagination and ingenuity in the plotting of this book are simply astonishing.
The Guest List by Lucy Foley
This was a massive hit when it was published, and it’s easy to see why. The Guest List is a picture-perfect example of a Christie-esque thriller. The story of a wedding party interrupted by a storm and a murder, it has everything you want in an island-bound thriller – claustrophobia and menace – plus a brilliantly jarring structure. The frequent flash-forwards to later points in time are as forceful and disorientating as the storm itself – endlessly wrong-footing the reader and ratcheting up the suspense to almost unbearable levels.
The Two Facets of January by Patricia Highsmith
This novel is set partly in Athens and also Crete – the Cretan section is particularly powerful, with a deadly visit to the Minoan ruin of Knossos, and the equally deadly love triangle between its central characters. It has been adapted for the screen twice – unsurprisingly, as Highsmith brings glamour, sexiness and her trademark duplicity to the island thriller. Her writing is never less than compelling and this is the perfect book to read on a Greek holiday.
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