Desert Island Books
Updated: Mar 17, 2022
This article was originally published on 31 July 2021.
I love a good mystery novel. This spring break I decided to reread some of my favourite mystery novels, as well as try some new ones on for size. As some of you may have noted from reading my past articles, I fancy myself a bit of a detective. So, fittingly, I have discovered another strange pattern in my favorite books in the mystery genre. I realised that the majority of them take place either on a remote island, or in an old mansion with lots of secret passages and dark corners for no-good doings — sometimes even both in the same book! Though perhaps I’ve only uncovered a common theme in what tickles my literary fancies, nonetheless, being the selfless author that I am, will share my findings with you. These novels are full of intrigue and are great reads if you find yourself in need of something to read, sprawled out on West Sands as the weather gets nicer.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
One of the most heralded mysteries of all time, The Hound of the Baskervilles drags John Watson out of the comfort of his London flat and onto the Devon moors. Sherlock Holmes’ friend, Charles Baskerville, has died under haunting circumstances. Legends of demonic hounds abound at Baskerville Hall, the old, imposing Baskerville family home in the middle of Dartmoor and surrounded by the deadly Grimpen Mire. It is all wonderfully Gothic and creepy, counteracting the logical reasoning that Sherlock Holmes believes in so profusely.
The description of the old house, its surroundings, and the matter of succession are a treat for the imagination, and will have you questioning whether the supernatural might actually overthrow the realistic in the end, and certainly make you have some sympathy for Catherine Morland.
The Au Pair by Emma Rous
After the sudden death of their father, the Mayes siblings are left grieving and wondering about the inheritance of their family estate, Summerbourne, where their mother threw herself off of a cliff just hours after the twins, Seraphine and Danny, were born. Rous’ perspective oscillates between Laura, the au pair who looked after Edwin, their older brother, the year leading up to the twins birth and the mother’s death, and Seraphine, who searches for the truth about that fatal summer and her parentage.
The novel brilliantly evokes the strangeness and secrecy central to Gothic fiction. Descriptions of the English seaside abound, as well as references to dubious family legacy and heritage and descriptions of the grand estate. Though not so lauded as the others here listed, it certainly hits that British-summer, old-family-estate, more-money-more-scandal spot.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Our nameless young female narrator finds herself suddenly married to a wealthy widower, George Fortescue Maximilian "Maxim" de Winter (What a mouthful!), and is then transported to his Gothic mansion in the English countryside, Manderley. Haunted by Maxim’s titular previous wife, the new Mrs de Winter finds her attempts to make a place for herself at Manderley thwarted by the imposing housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, and by the memory of Rebecca herself. There are few scenes in all literature so foreboding as when our young narrator walks down the corridor of a large creaky mansion at night in her nightgown, her path lit only by a candle.
The Lighthouse by P D James
We have entered the remote island portion of this article! If you thought those old houses were drafty… wait until actual wind becomes a factor.
Detective Dalgleish and his team are brought out to Combe Island to investigate the death of a famous crime author. The few who inhabit or are visitors of the island are effectively trapped there as the detective team investigates, making for a feeling of cornered-animal anxiety throughout the novel. The island, though small, comes with plenty of cliffs and coves, as well as an impressive lighthouse, in which secrets could dwell. P D James is famously great at playing readers’ expectations, so don’t go jumping to any conclusions too quickly.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Ten strangers, a remote island, a storm, an ominous poem, and a mysterious host. This is the mystery novel to end all mystery novels, the inspiration for countless books, plays, and one well-known board game (Cluedo!), and the blueprint for the remote island/mysterious mansion murder story genre.
Ten strangers arrive on Soldier Island, to find their hosts absent. As a large storm traps them there for days without any way to contact the mainland, guests begin to perish in accordance with a children’s rhyme hung up in each bedroom. Dark pasts are revealed, the island is searched, and nobody is above suspicion. The plot is thrilling, the characters intriguing, and the murders delightfully contrived. You cannot go wrong with And Then There Were None.