The Island Mystique

October 1, 2021
On Lake Champlain

Something done a second time is derivative; when it’s done a thousand times, it’s a genre. The mystery novel I’m working on right now is in the island thriller genre. I was inspired by Circe’s island of Aeaea that appears in The Odyssey and by the story of Medusa.

The appeal of the island thriller is the isolation, which allows more intense interaction with the landscape. Who can forget the topography of the island in Robinson Crusoe? I think the isolation also brings more intensity to character interactions. People can’t escape one another on an island.

Another island tale that inspires me is P.D. James’s The Lighthouse. My island will also have a lighthouse. It’s an element that can’t be left out – lighthouses are so spooky and romantic at the same time. Also, my island is on Lake Champlain, which has lots of lighthouses. It is a fictional island, but a composite of Isle la Motte, Grand Isle, and Valcour Island. I used the place name Peregrine, as in Peregrine Cottage in the James novel. James was a devout Christian and peregrine has overtones of pilgramage. For me, the word has not only the suggestion of wandering found in The Odyssey, but the association with the Peregrine Falcon. Circe is a falcon goddess.

I learned recently that James wrote this novel when she was 85, which I find inspiring and a bit comforting. I admired the way James used the SARS Corona Virus One in this novel to great effect. I incorporate COVID-19 into the fabric of my own novel. Doing so worries me, because agents are writing DO NOT SEND ANYTHING ABOUT A PANDEMIC!!!!! in their wish lists. Yet how can the pandemic be written out of a novel that takes place in 2020? I don’t see a way, without it looking contrived. I’ve always thought that novels taking place in the early 1940s, even in the American mainland, which was spared bombing, to feel quite odd if there is no mention of the war.

One of my favorite island movie mysteries is Dolores Claiborne, based on the novel by Stephen King. Kathy Bates’s performance in that movie is one that deserves a prominent place in cinematic history. I like not only the sinister tone of the movie, but the unflinching gaze at class divides.

Another island movie I like is Triangle at Rhodes, based on the Agatha Christie novel. The camera work in this movie is strikingly beautiful and profound. I usually consider films that linger on scenery annoyingly pretentious, but I wished in this one that the camera would hold the images a few more frames.

Christie’s most well known island mystery And Then There Were None is echoed in Rachel Howzell Hall’s They All Fall Down, which takes place in this century on an island off the coast of Mexico. By the end of that novel, I was more than reconciled to the death of the protagonist.

A classic in the island thriller genre is The Tempest, which believe it or not I’m unfamiliar with. The plot sounds entirely up my alley, but I haven’t had the opportunity to see this one performed, and I don’t like to read Shakespeare’s plays. I found a movie version that I’m looking forward to watching. If I like it, I’ll write a review.