The Big Thrill Discusses THE CLIFF HOUSE with Chris Brookmyre
Jen Dunne is forty-two and getting married for the second time, but that doesn’t mean she can’t go all out for her bachelorette weekend. She’s booked three days of super-exclusive luxury accommodation on a remote Scottish island for herself and six other women. There’s Jen’s tennis coach and a fellow tennis-playing fashionista; a famous pop star and that pop star’s estranged ex-bandmate; plus Jen’s future sister-in-law and the sister of her first husband.
The helicopter won’t be back for seventy-hours and they have the island all to themselves—or so they think. As the cocktails flow, old grudges begin to emerge and tempers to fray. Then one of the women goes missing. The others receive a threatening message urging one of them to confess a terrible secret. But whose secret is it? Each woman has a darkness in her past she’s reluctant to admit. But they’ll all have to come clean if they want to make it off the island alive.
Chris Brookmyre recently sat down with The Big Thrill discussing his latest domestic thriller, THE CLIFF HOUSE.
A novel is such a major undertaking; there’s the writing of it, of course, then you’re spending months and months revising, polishing, and then promoting it. How did you know this was the book you wanted to spend the next couple of years on?
I first conceived of the idea of a hen weekend gone wrong in the summer of 2014, but the idea never quite caught fire until the pandemic, when I was isolated from my friends and starved of social interaction. When I first started work on the book, it was autumn of 2020: no vaccine yet in sight and winter lockdowns on the horizon. Writing about a group of people thrown together on a remote island let me deal with issues of both isolation and social tensions. And quite simply, creating a fictional wild party weekend was as close as I was going to get for some time.
Can you pinpoint a moment or incident that sparked the idea for this book?
During lockdown, I saw Kim Kardashian on social media talking about how she was flying a group of her friends to a private island for a party; this at a time when I wasn’t allowed to go further than a mile of my house, and not allowed to see friends except outdoors and at a safe distance. I remember joking to my wife that many people would love to go to that private island and kill all of them for flaunting this outlandish privilege at such a time, and suddenly an idea was born.
When you first created your protagonist for this book, did you see an empty space in crime lit that you wanted to fill? What can you share about the inspiration for that character?
There are seven protagonists in THE CLIFF HOUSE, with the narrative perspective shared between all of them. This was so that it is not obvious to the reader who is favoured, innocent or guilty. I spent three months constructing their personalities and their individual crimes, so that their hidden sins would be appropriate to each of them. What was fascinating was that when I put them together on the island, things started sparking between the characters that I had not anticipated, as I started to understand how they would react to one another.
Were there any particular books, movies, or songs that were knocking around in your head while you were writing this one?
Any story of invitations to a select and secluded gathering where death is the true host will inevitably make the seasoned crime reader think of And Then There Were None. There is no point in denying that Agatha Christie’s classic thriller played a part in shaping my book, but THE CLIFF HOUSE is as much subversion as homage. Compelling and brilliant as Christie’s tale might be, on an emotional level I recoil from how literally unforgiving it is, as a group of people are extra-judiciously executed for their secret crimes by a figure representing the rule of law. I wanted to respond to how Christie’s book is about retribution by writing a novel about forgiveness.
Music plays a big part in the novel, with a playlist constantly repeating in the background, and the seven women coming to realise that the selections are not a coincidence: each track has a sinister implication for one of them. The Spotify playlist is here.
In addition to a great read, what do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I conceived of the book during the pandemic. After two years of being starved of the kind of regular warm human contact upon which we all depend, I wanted to write a story about the value of friendship. I also wanted to write a story about forgiveness: about how we remain prisoners of our own enmity and bitterness until we can forgive those who have harmed us, and until we can forgive ourselves our own sins.
What can you share about what you’re working on next?
My new book is best described as what you might get of Agatha Christie and Michael Connolly teamed up to write their version of Inception.
Christopher Brookmyre was a journalist before publishing his award-winning debut, Quite Ugly One Morning. He is the author of the Jack Parlabane thriller series, which has sold over 1 million copies in the UK alone, and the acclaimed Jasmine Sharp and Catherine McLeod novels. He has won many awards for his work, including the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, the McIlvanney Prize for Best Scottish Crime Novel of the Year, the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, and the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award.
To learn more about the author, please visit his website.
THE CLIFF HOUSE with Chris Brookmyre