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The Best Thrillers Set in Luxury Locations

recommended by Rachel Wolf

Five Nights by Rachel Wolf


Five Nights
by Rachel Wolf


It can be a lot of fun reading a pacy thriller set in a glamorous, unattainable world — filled with characters you love to hate. Rachel Wolf, author of Five Nights, recommends five thrillers set in luxury locations where immense wealth and a beautiful setting mix with dark secrets and horrendous crimes.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Five Nights by Rachel Wolf


Five Nights
by Rachel Wolf

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We’re talking about thrillers set in luxury locations. What attracted you to that theme both as a reader and as a writer?

The reason I became interested in writing a luxury thriller was coming out of COVID lockdown—and having been stuck in the house for however long—I felt I needed some kind of glamour. But it was that period of time when you weren’t allowed to leave the country. All the cruise ships were stuck in the harbor, and had been, for a year or so.

My friends and I booked a cruise ship that sailed up and down the Channel. You weren’t allowed to leave England, but you could sail along the Channel. We were all over Succession and watched the reality show Below Deck on TV. I’ve also always been obsessed with Agatha Christie and had reread and watched Death on the Nile quite recently.

So I was on this cruise ship, and thinking, ‘Yes! This is what I’m interested in — a bit of glamour, some excitement.’ I decided to set the book on a cruise ship.

I’ve loved Lucy Foley’s writing for ages —The Guest List, which is set on an island, and The Hunting Party. I love that ‘Leave the world behind. Let’s forget about everything we’re bothered about at the moment and just get lost in this aspirational, unattainable world where you love to hate everybody that you’re reading about.’

I was really drawn to writing about that kind of world because I needed some escapism at the time.

You’ve chosen five of your favorites in this ‘luxury thriller’ genre. Do you want to start by telling me about The Chalet by Catherine Cooper, which is set in the French Alps?

The Chalet is all luxury and all secrets. We have our main protagonist, and we also have other points of view, which I always like. You dip in behind the scenes, see what’s happened before, hear other character’s opinions, and feel privy to just the right amount of secrets at just the right time.

There’s a very big, dramatic finish and everything comes to a head. I find it very hard not to give the plot away too much…But I just loved it. It was very different. I raced through it.

I’ve subsequently read her book The Chateau and she’s also written a novel set on a cruise ship called The Cruise. It came out after I’d written mine and I messaged her to say, ‘I’m really sorry. I’ve also written a book set on a cruise ship.’ She said not to worry as when The Chalet came out, Ruth Ware had also just written one set in a ski chalet, One by One. There is obviously some kind of collective movement towards this kind of thing!

The Chalet was the first novel I read by Catherine Cooper, but I’ve loved all of them. It’s very hard to write a book that feels easy and quick to read. So many people think of it as a simple genre, but it’s actually very difficult to put something together that is easily accessible and well plotted. You feel like you’re being whipped through this mysterious world loaded with secrets where everyone is wearing a fabulous outfit. Her novels are gripping and a really good read.

Let’s move on to your next choice, The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse. It’s another Alpine one, but this one is set in the Swiss Alps. Tell me more.

It’s a similar setup, but it’s a darker book. The sanatorium location was once an actual sanatorium. It’s now a beautiful luxury resort, but given the name, and the history of it, there are some darker secrets hiding. Again, those come to light.

What I really liked about The Sanatorium was that locked room, isolated setting — in a hotel that nobody can reach. Something terrible happens. There’s an awful storm. Everybody’s locked in the resort. And we have our protagonist who has a window of time to unearth the answers to some questions before even more terrible things happen.

I love the landscape as well. Catherine Cooper’s books I’ve mentioned are set in beautiful, scenic French countryside. With The Sanatorium it’s bleak and dark. Whilst it’s beautiful, there’s an edge to it. It’s not just a luxurious retreat. It’s really cold. You feel that if you stepped outside, terrible things would happen if you stayed there too long. It doesn’t have that holiday resort feel.

You mentioned the locked room mystery: is that an important aspect of it for you in this kind of book? Because, obviously, if you’re on a cruise at sea, you can’t get in or out either.

Yes, absolutely, I love that. There are actual locked room mysteries — like some by Agatha Christie where the body is found in a room, but the room is locked from the inside and nobody could have got in or out.

But sometimes when we say ‘locked room’ what we really mean is a very closed environment where somebody in the party must be guilty of the murder. In The Sanatorium, you have a group of suspects and various kinds of secrets come into play. In one chapter, you suspect one person; in another, you suspect somebody else. It’s just brilliant. You unearth individual histories and backstories. I like that feeling of being suspended and held and then surprised. It’s a real pleasure to be taken along and guess the real murderer, feeling like you’re your own Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.

How does the locked room element play out in your book, Five Nights?

I’ve gone for the loose locked room feel, so there isn’t a body in a room with the key locked inside. It is on a ship of 3000 — a hugely glamorous luxury liner. However, I’ve got a very small cast, and because of their VIP status, they have access to parts of the ship that nobody else does.

My protagonist is meeting her friend whom she hasn’t spoken to for three years for reasons that come to light during the novel. Her friend has married a billionaire who owns the cruise liner and it’s on its inaugural cruise.

They’re on the most luxurious ship with very rich people, and yet when terrible things begin to happen, it begins to feel claustrophobic. There are some very claustrophobic settings which act like locked rooms. For example, I have a scene where something terrible happens when they’re all shut in a karaoke booth — one of them in the booth is responsible for a crime, but which one? I really enjoyed writing it. It was such a blast.

I guess part of the attraction of luxury thrillers is the travel. Do your protagonists go anywhere or is most of the action on board the ship?

I call it a cruise because it’s nice and easy but technically it’s a crossing — because the ship sails out of Portsmouth Harbour and goes to New York. The inaugural cruise is five nights and six days—from Portsmouth to New York—and that’s when everything happens. We do have a very brief spell in New York and a brief spell at Portsmouth before we set off, but it all happens aboard the ship. It’s isolated. There may or may not be a storm at some point. There is another voice in the novel from three years earlier – her scenes don’t take place on the ship.

Let’s go on to The Invitation. You’ve already mentioned you’re a Lucy Foley fan. I hadn’t heard of this one of hers, which is set in 1951. Is it historical fiction mixed with mystery?

I was deliberating which Lucy Foley to choose because I’ve gone for very classic kind of locked room, small cast thrillers with my other choices. The Guest List is an obvious choice by Lucy, and so well known, but I decided to go for one of her earlier novels, The Invitation.

The Invitation is slightly different. There’s a bit of Sleeping with the Enemy in there, the film with Julia Roberts. A haunting, unsettling vibe. It’s very glamorous, and I love the location. Lucy’s such a beautiful writer. When you read her chapters, you’re suspended in Rome or in Cannes, at one point. Then later you’re on a beautiful yacht in the middle of the sea.

Unlike the others, it’s a love story. But there’s still a body. We still have suspects, and there is still an investigation. So there are secrets and mysteries. The Guest List and The Hunting Party were her huge hits, but I did love The Invitation.

Is The Invitation your favorite of Lucy Foley’s, then?

It’s too hard to say. The Guest List and The Hunting Party are so different. They’re both what I think of now as commercial thrillers — with love-to-hate characters. The Invitation feels more like a love story as well as a mystery. It’s not really a thriller in the same way.

The Invitation I liked because of Rome, because of the parties, and the history that adds glamour to it as well. Anything set a few decades earlier is a different kind of travel — in the same way that going to a luxury resort takes you out of yourself.

Let’s move on to The Club by Ellery Lloyd which, like The Guest List (and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None), is set on an island.

In the novel, there’s something called ‘The Home.’ It’s a bit like Soho House, a members’ club. Everyone who is a member seems to be a TV star or a film director, and it’s all very, very glamorous. The owner of The Home, Ned, has stepped up even for him, and has now bought an island. I love the feeling that everything has been raised a notch — every scenario is brighter and more vivid, and the characters are under more tension.

It’s the big opening night to this new ‘Island Home.’ Everything’s riding on it and everyone wants an invitation. People are trying to sneak in or bribe their way in. But of course there are secrets lurking in the background, and Ned goes missing. At this point, I have to stop talking about the plot or I’ll give too much away.

By the time Ned goes missing, we have a whole array of characters who hate him. Is he dead or isn’t he? If he is, what’s happened to him and who’s done it?

Again, it’s all set against a beautiful backdrop. The book describes, at one point, about being able to have a bath and look out the window and nobody can see you. There’s a feeling of privacy, seclusion and luxury. There’s even an underwater restaurant in the book, which is brilliant. However, nothing is as it seems. It’s a great book. I really raced through it. I loved it.

Presumably, it’s quite irritating for the locals to have this ultra-exclusive club arrive?

Yes, they do have a residents’ meeting in the novel, where one of the members from The Home has to go and defend the building of a new club on the island. There’s a brick thrown through the window and all the local residents are up in arms.

Let’s turn to your final choice, The Yacht by Sarah Goodwin. What’s the difference between a yacht and a cruise?

A yacht is a smaller vessel whereas a cruise ship can be massive. In January, the biggest cruise ship ever was launched and sailed out of Florida. It can hold up to 10,000 people and has seven swimming pools and a water park. It’s just unbelievable.

In this book, there are only six people on the yacht. I don’t know how much to give away! They plan to have a New Year’s party on deck in the harbor. There’s a helicopter on the yacht. They’ve got outside heaters and music going. There are lights, there are canapes and so much champagne, it’s untrue.

It’s about three friends who have been close for years but are no longer friends in the same way. Two of them are rich, but one of them is not rich at all. There is tension between them. Some dreadful husbands are thrown into the pot as well. There are arguments and our protagonist—the poorer one of the group—decides to leave after the party in the morning. But she discovers a terrible secret about their situation, and they end up isolated and at sea.

It’s a bit like Lord of the Flies. They’re locked in the middle of the sea with no food and no water, and they turn on each other. I don’t think I liked any of them — but I kind of loved them all, if that makes sense. I loved to hate them. It was like dominoes: one would do something terrible and then somebody else would do something even worse.

It was very tense. It had everything. It had isolation, a small group, a locked room feel in that there was a small space with only a certain number of guests. It had jealousy. And it had extreme wealth. I was obsessed with it when I was reading. I couldn’t put it down.

You mentioned earlier going on a cruise, and how that inspired you to write Five Nights. Can you tell me more about the book and the research you did to put it together?

The book is supposed to be a thrilling, hooky read, the kind that keeps you guessing, but I wanted there to be some element of depth to the characters. One of my characters has been quite changed. I needed an event that bridged who she was to where she is now. She was taken hostage — kidnapped and held for ransom. I wanted to get her story right. I spoke to Hostage International, this amazing charity that do incredible work and they recommended some books that had been written by people who had been held hostage. I wanted to understand how others had been changed by such an experience. So even though it’s not given a vast amount of page space, I hope it’s a valid account of how somebody may change when something so huge happens to them.

I also went on two cruises. I mentioned the one I went on straight after lockdown. I also managed to go on another one with a couple of friends and really discovered what isolation was like, because I caught COVID. I ended up on the medical deck. I couldn’t leave, I wasn’t even allowed to call room service to order a coffee. They had to bring set meals, and the medical staff would come along in a full hazmat suit, to deliver food, take my temperature, etc. every morning. I spent 48 hours isolated in the medical unit, and then I was ushered off the ship and a friend drove me home. So I felt that I really experienced isolation on the ship as well as enjoying the luxurious parts of it.

Obviously, I saw the medical unit for myself, but the captain also gave us a tour of the bridge and talked me through the security measures. He told me how they would hold somebody they suspected of a crime, and what they would do in an emergency and if a body was to be found; also what the procedure is if somebody falls overboard. I felt confident I covered the research carefully. Hopefully it stands the test.

In terms of the luxury thriller genre, do you think part of the appeal is schadenfreude — seeing these terrible things happen to these very privileged and often not-very-nice people?

Oh my god yes! As I was saying earlier, I love to hate the characters. You love to watch their downfall because you don’t find them very appealing or they’re slightly repellent. It’s really good watching them tip all the way down.

Yes, in Five Nights, the rich family the friend has married into is pretty ghastly.

The Scarmardos are awful. The dad enjoys his role as head of the family. He’s quite old-fashioned. He has that whole Italian machismo thing, ‘I am the man and my authority is key.’ I love all of that in him and he has it in spades. He has ruled his family with an iron fist and now, when they try to rebel, he’s got all the money so they can’t push back too far because they don’t want to be cut off. When he marries somebody who is younger than his eldest son, they all go mad with worry about their inheritance, but they can’t seem to be too angry because he demonstrates he will cut back on their allowances. They’ve got to knuckle down and any kind of hatred or anger they feel comes out through secrets, through actions they can’t be very public about. It was a lot of fun to write.

Friend groups also seem to be coming up a lot in your choices — tell me about the friendship in Five Nights.

I have two friends who have grown up next door to each other. They’re from a not-very-rich background — both their families worked at the local factory. They grow up having ice lollies on the back lawn, stealing their mother’s lipstick and having sleepovers on a Friday night. They watch richer people go skiing and decide to go to university together and change their lives. Then, when they finish university, they go traveling, and they crew on luxury yachts. That is how one of them is taken, and held hostage. It’s also how they suddenly have access to all of this finery in life that they’ve never experienced before. And so ultimately, after this terrible thing occurs, one of them ends up marrying a billionaire and the other one goes back home to lick her wounds. They haven’t spoken for three years — for reasons that will be unearthed in the novel…

‘Five Nights’ by Rachel Wolf is published by Head of Zeus at £9.99 as a paperback original today (29 February, 2024)

The best thrillers

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

February 29, 2024

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Rachel Wolf

Rachel Wolf

Rachel Wolf is a British thriller writer. Before transitioning to a writing career, she worked for a holiday company, gaining extensive travel experience that serves as inspiration for her novels. The thriller Five Nights draws from her travels, offering readers a glimpse into the world of luxury cruise ships and super-rich characters.

Rachel Wolf

Rachel Wolf

Rachel Wolf is a British thriller writer. Before transitioning to a writing career, she worked for a holiday company, gaining extensive travel experience that serves as inspiration for her novels. The thriller Five Nights draws from her travels, offering readers a glimpse into the world of luxury cruise ships and super-rich characters.