10 Novels About Vacations Gone Horribly, Fantastically Wrong

10 Novels About Vacations Gone Horribly, Fantastically Wrong

Monday, 19 July, 2021

In real life, we all want our travels to go as smoothly as possible. On-time transport, a hotel that looks just like its photos, postcard-worthy weather, good vibes with our travel companions, and all the delicious food we can eat.

But on the page, is there anything quite so enthralling as a bit of murder and interpersonal drama in a picture-perfect setting? Give us all the perilous jungles, poor decisions, booze-fueled infighting, and tempers that flare as hot as the summer sun.

From luxury cruise ships to holiday getaways in France, New Zealand, Scotland, Morocco, and Canada, these pages turn so quickly! A note to the wise: If this list is any indication, take good care when you visit the irresistible beaches of Mexico.


Aboard a luxury liner from Australia to New Zealand

rock formation on the beach in new zealand
Photo courtesy of marina/Unsplash.

Death by Water - Kerry Greenwood

Death by Water
> Kerry Greenwood

Phryne Fisher is a heroine we can believe in. An independent lady-detective in 1928 Melbourne, she’s an equal-opportunity lover and prone to wearing pants (all the easier to shimmy up a drainpipe). She keeps a pearl-handled pistol in her evening bag, and she is not here for any of your nonsense.

In this adventure, she’s sailing from Melbourne to New Zealand on a luxury cruise ship to catch a jewel thief. And probably, to crack some skulls and break some hearts along the way.

As the ship glides west through the Tasman Sea, life aboard takes on a rhythm of gourmet meals, top-shelf cocktails, cheap wine, dancing, flirting, and midnight dalliances. There are also sexy jazz musicians, an attempted drowning, blackmail, a sneaky tomcat, beastly husbands, haunting stories of shipwrecks, and a dramatic Māori war dance. {more}

Phryne was angry. The only way that an informed observer could tell was that her lips were a little tighter and her winged nostrils flared as though she was smelling out her prey. Phryne in that mood made Dot uncomfortable. Her employer was about to happen to someone. — Kerry Greenwood


At a quaint inn in rural Quebec, Canada

a canoe on a glassy lake
Photo courtesy of Ali Kazal/Unsplash.

A Rule Against Murder - Louise Penny

A Rule Against Murder
> Louise Penny

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is compassionate, intelligent, measured in his speech, generous with his praise, quick to accept responsibility for cock-ups, and — not for nothing — always smells like sandalwood.

Gamache, his friends, family, and assorted villains have starred in 17 books to date, most of which take place in Three Pines, the fictional village where Gamache lives with his adored and adorable wife, Reine-Marie.

In this installment, he and his wife leave Three Pines to celebrate their wedding anniversary at the Manoir Bellechasse, a remote and luxurious mansion on a lake surrounded by forest.

Unfortunately, the Finney family — rich, cultured, horrible people — has also gathered at the inn for a family reunion. During a storm that disrupts the stifling heat and humidity of the summer, one of the Finneys is killed. Inspector Gamache senses murder, and the suspect pool is rich with prospects — imagine an Agatha Christie mystery, but with probing examination of the characters’ psyches. It’s brisk, exciting, and lush with atmosphere, as it explores the dark and light in people’s hearts. {more}

Chief Inspector Gamache knew one thing about hate. It bound you forever to the person you hated. Murder wasn’t committed out of hate, it was done as a terrible act of freedom. To finally rid yourself of the burden. — Louise Penny


At a hot springs spa in Wai-ata-tapu, New Zealand

close up of maori totem
Photo courtesy of Init1alP/Shutterstock.

Colour Scheme - Ngaio Marsh

Colour Scheme
> Ngaio Marsh

Ah, the resort area of Wai-ata-tapu in New Zealand. Mud baths, hot springs, the majesty of volcanic Rangi’s Peak, a Māori village, and… oops! murder. Welcome to the irresistibly sinister world of Ngaio Marsh, the Kiwi Queen of Crime.

It’s 1942, and the War has made its way south to the waters around New Zealand. Retired Colonel Claire, a nice fellow (and terrible businessman), runs a hot springs spa with his wife with little enthusiasm and not much more success. The resort is on the verge of being taken over by Maurice Questing, a pushy gasbag who offends just about everyone he meets — and who may or may not be a Nazi spy.

Between soaks in the mud baths and uncomfortable family meals, we get to know the characters in all their flawed and suspicious glory. Because this is a Golden Age crime story, it’s not long before there are mysterious happenings in this previously soothing patch of New Zealand real estate, including a ship torpedoed in the bay, mysterious flashing lights, unexplained absences, a disagreement about sacred Māori artifacts, and a dead body in the boiling mud bath of Taupo-tapu. {more}

The road corkscrewed its way in and out of a gully and along a barren stretch of downland. On its left, the coast ran freely northwards in a chain of scrolls, last interruptions in its firm line before it tightened into the Ninety Mile Beach. The thunder of the Tasman Sea hung like a vast rumour on the freshening air, and above the margin of the downs Rangi’s Peak was slowly erected. ‘That’s an ominous-looking affair,’ said Gaunt. ‘What is it about these hills that gives them an air of the fabulous? They are not so very odd in shape, not incredible like the Dolomites or imposing like the Rockies — not, as you point out in your superior way, Dikon, really mountains at all. Yet they seem to be pregnant with some tiresome secret. What is it?’ — Ngaio Marsh


At a glitzy resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

swimming pool at a resort hotel in cabo san lucas, mexico
Photo courtesy of James Wheeler/Unsplash.

Fields’ Guide to Abduction - Julie Mulhern

Fields' Guide to Abduction
> Julie Mulhern

This is your quintessential beach read: a straight-up action-adventure story — set in Cabo San Lucas — with a heroine who can outrun the baddest of bad guys while wearing a slinky dress and high heels.

Poppy Fields — yes, that’s her actual birth name — is a bit of a wreck. She’s almost always in conflict with her actress mother; she’s got an unhealthy addiction to her on-again, off-again boyfriend; and her days are spent aimlessly doing not much at all.

The book opens when Poppy wakes up, hungover, with her passed-out boyfriend at her side. As she collects her clothes and shoes, she swears to herself that this is the last time: she’ll never sleep with him again. It turns out she’s right because he’s dead.

To recover from the shock, she accepts an invitation to attend the opening of a lavish, sexy resort for beautiful people in Cabo. But when she arrives, things go quickly from bad to worse: Bodies are dropping all over the beach.

As Poppy investigates — because, why not?! — she discovers depths in her own character that she didn’t know she had. She’s transformed into a badass right before our eyes. {more}

James was so deeply in the closet, he had one foot in Narnia. — Julie Mulhern


At a girls’ getaway in Tulum, Mexico

blue water in a cave with vines in Ik-Kil Cenote, Chichen Itza, Mexico
Photo courtesy of Subbotina Anna/Shutterstock

Girls’ Night Out - Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

Girls' Night Out
> Liz Fenton, Lisa Steinke

This is an astute study of complicated female friendships disguised as a beachy thriller, and you won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough because you must. know. what. happened. The story begins with the introduction of three women: Ashley, Natalie, and Lauren. They’ve been friends for 20 years, and though their friendship is cemented with shared memories, it’s also infected with past grievances.

They decide that a boozy trip to Tulum might be just the thing to heal the wounds in their relationships. Spoiler: It is not. From the first moments of their vacation — when they peer pressure each other into drinking margaritas and desperately flirt with the bartender — the old tensions are right there.

After a few tense days together, they embark on a painfully determined girls’ night out. Ashley goes missing, and Natalie wakes up on the beach the next morning, just a few yards from her hotel room, soaking wet and unable to remember anything from the night before.

In addition to reveling in train-wreck characters, this book does a brilliant job capturing the contradictory elements of Tulum: the crystal-gazing, hippy-dippy mysticism; its awesome beauty and perfect beaches; the connection to the past via the Mayan ruins; the endless cocktails; and the seductive notion that you can escape real life for a while.

This is a tense story about mildly terrible people making epically bad decisions. Like a perfectly salted tortilla chip with a tequila chaser, it’s irresistible. {more}

Waves lapped against the shore. It sounded as if the sea were breathing. In and out. In and out. — Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke


In the jungle near Cancun, Mexico

human skulls stacked among jungle vines
Photo courtesy of Cristian Grecu/Unsplash

The Ruins - Scott B. Smith

The Ruins
> Scott Smith

This is a straight-up horror novel, and it won’t be for everyone, but if you like creepy happenings and don’t mind graphic gross-outs, this book is a lot of fun. Two young-and-hot couples are on a vacation together in Cancun. It’s going exactly as you’d expect: There’s plenty of lounging on the beach, drinking too much, waking up with hangovers, and becoming new besties with the other tourists. When the brother of one of their new pals goes missing, they make the colossally bad decision to leave their resort hotel for an excursion into the jungle. Amid the relentlessly green foliage and oppressive heat, they stumble onto something inexplicable… and horrible. The story is about the terror of what’s happening to them. But it’s also about personal character and the ways that a stressful situation can amplify personalities.

It also has something to say about treating indigenous peoples’ monuments and ruins as a tourist playground. Respect, people; think about it.

This page-turner is very entertaining and, in some passages, super creepy and disgusting — but the ick-factor is all in service of the story. This is an unusual combination of probing character study and the bookish version of a middle-of-the-summer popcorn flick. {more}

Try to be like an animal. Like a dog. Rest when you have the chance. Eat and drink if there’s food and water. Survive each moment. That’s all. — Scott B. Smith


On a luxury liner from LA to Hawaii

blue lounge chairs in a cruise ship salon
Photo courtesy of Ivan Smuk/Shutterstock

The Last Cruise - Kate Christensen

The Last Cruise
> Kate Christensen

The glamorous 1950s ocean liner Queen Isabella is making her final voyage — a retro cruise from Long Beach to Hawaii and back — before heading to the scrapyard. It should be a dream getaway for the guests onboard. Gourmet food, string quartets, no cell phones, no children. What could possibly go wrong?

As the story opens, we meet three characters on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure: a former journalist who’s now a middle-aged farmer in Maine, a newly-promoted Hungarian chef with plenty to prove in the kitchen, and an elderly Israeli violinist who’s on board to entertain with the rest of her quartet.

Although the sea is smooth and the pieces are in place for an elegant experience — dressing for dinner, polite conversation over cocktails — a fog of unease settles over the narrative. There’s a sense that something is coming, although no one is sure what or when.

As the ship cruises across the expanse of the Pacific, external and internal forces collide, and the true character of everyone aboard — the passengers, the crew, the ship itself — is revealed. {more}

The rich and famous of the era booked suites and dined on filet mignon and oysters Rockefeller at the captain’s table, danced the cha-cha and the tango to hot bands in the ballroom, drank martinis and cognac in the Starlight Lounge, smoked cheroots in the casino… Gene Kelly made a splash in the ballroom for a dazzling night, squiring several starstruck matrons around the teak parquet floor, dipping one so low her diamond brooch fell off, then famously dipping her again at the end of the dance so he could pick it up again and hand it back to her… Her last cruise will be a celebration of the glorious era of glamour and elegance, a theater of nostalgia. — Kate Christensen


Among the vineyards in Languedoc, France

vineyards in the village of Saint Jean de Bueges in Languedoc, France
Photo courtesy of Paul Atkinson/Shutterstock

The Vacation - T.M. Logan

The Vacation
> T.M. Logan

What better way to celebrate summer than a luxurious villa in the south of France. In a vineyard. With your three best friends in the world. And all of your families. It’s a sun-drenched paradise — except when it’s not. And in this case, it’s really, really not.

Kate and her three best girlfriends have spent a weekend away together for decades. But this year, they’ve extended their holiday to a full week and included their spouses and kids.

But after a long drive through the French countryside, Kate makes a chilling discovery: Her husband is having an affair, and one of her trusted friends is the other woman. This story is a layer cake of secrets and suspicions, and it is delicious. T.M. Logan’s lush descriptions of the Mediterranean setting — green vineyards, sweltering sun, cobbled alleys, and the straight-from-Architectural-Digest villa — make for a satisfying contrast with the ugly goings-on among the characters.

The plot is as twisty as the streets in the nearby village. Just when the action — and relentless sunshine — are about to push everyone over the edge: a roaring thunderstorm.

Note: This novel is called The Holiday in the U.K. because British English is fancy like that. {more}

I opened my door and stepped out, stretching my arms after the journey, the air-conditioned chill vanishing instantly as the late July heat enveloped me like a blanket. The air smelled of olives and pine and summer heat baked into the dark earth. There was no sound – no traffic, no people – except for the gentle swishing of the breeze high up in the cypress trees, the car engine ticking quietly as it cooled. We stood there, stretching and blinking in the dazzling sun, taking in the villa… three wide storeys of whitewashed stone and terracotta tiles, the parking circle shaded by olive trees, broad stone steps leading up to a double front door in dark, studded oak. — T.M. Logan


At a snowed-in resort in the Scottish Highlands

old building buried in the snow
Photo courtesy of Todd Diemer/Unsplash.

The Hunting Party - Lucy Foley

The Hunting Party
> Lucy Foley

It’s a tradition: Every December 31, nine thirty-something friends from Oxford travel to an exotic location to ring in the new year together. This time, they’re vacationing at an isolated hunting lodge in Scotland — and their celebration goes horribly, fabulously wrong.

The trip begins, as a thrilling adventure should, on a train from London to Scotland. There’s a decided party atmosphere on board as the old friends drink bubbly and get caught up on each others’ lives. But by the time they reach the snow-bound lodge of Loch Corrin, it’s painfully evident to all of them that something is off among their formerly tight-knit crew. As the year slowly winds down, tensions ratchet up until eventually, one of them is dead — and another one of them did it.

Author Lucy Foley gleefully vamps on the tropes of Golden-Age mysteries — the train, the isolated manor house, the epic snowstorm, the secrets, the muuurrrder — but it’s all got a modern and lethal edge. The characters are gossipy and backstabbing, their friendships are corrupted, and what looks like love is really obsession, habit, and tradition. Plus, there’s a questionable (but distractingly handsome) caretaker, an unpredictable hostess with secrets of her own, and the forbidding landscape of the Scottish highlands. {more}

New Year’s Eve. The loneliest night of the year, even if you’re with people. Even before my life fell apart. — Lucy Foley


In the medina of Casablanca, Morocco

alley with arches in morocco
Photo courtesy of Renato De Santis/Shutterstock.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty - Vendela Vida

The story opens with an unnamed narrator on a plane from Miami to Casablanca. We know a tragedy has befallen our heroine, and even the guide book she flips through to distract herself has an ominous tone: The first thing to do upon arriving in Casablanca is get out of Casablanca. She has booked a room for three nights in Casablanca; it is, perhaps, a bad omen.

At check-in, distracted and hobbled by the rigors of jetlag, someone steals her nondescript black backpack. Inside is everything that identifies her as her: passport, laptop, credit cards, cash, camera, toiletries, a pair of coral earrings.

This troubling loss sets off a chain of events that takes surprising turns. Cut adrift from her identity both by geography and paperwork, she becomes a chameleon. As she moves further from her real life, we learn more about the tragic events that sent her on the run. And we’re forced to consider how we’d react in similar situations, even as we marvel at the puzzling decisions she makes.

Noirishly dark, this novel is a gleefully wicked examination of how we recognize ourselves when we’re detached from everything we think defines us. {more}

Your plan was to go to Fez, to Marrakech, to the desert, but these places no longer have appeal. You try to imagine when they did have appeal. You try to remember the person you were when planning this very trip. — Vendela Vida

Top image courtesy of Everett Collection/Shutterstock.

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