Every summer my partner and I make sure to spend at least a day at Lake Michigan, more if we can swing it, and despite the fact that we now live in landlocked Iowa, we finally managed to get ourselves to the Lake this summer! Embarking on a day at the beach is no small undertaking, and it’s rather incredible the amount of stuff that one has to pack for what amounts to a few hours swimming and sitting around reading. For me, packing the right book is just as essential as packing sunscreen and snacks, and this year was no exception, but I was a little surprised when I looked at my book and my partner’s and noticed a bit of an unexpected theme — I had brought along The Verifiers by Jane Pek, and my partner had Hidden Pictures by Jason Rekulak.
Not your stereotypical beach reads — or are they?
Putting aside the fact that my partner doesn’t like light and fluffy fiction of any genre, and they’re more likely to read true crime or nonfiction over anything else, I do enjoy a good stereotypical “beach read.” In fact my Lake Michigan read two years ago was actually Beach Read by Emily Henry (not to get too meta!). “Beach read” is sort of a nebulous term that we have explored before here in our history of beach reads, but the general consensus seems to be that a good beach read is something that is easy to read on a summer trip, and is also a buzzy book that publishes at the end of spring or start of summer. According to our history of the term, books billed as summer reads oftentimes share the qualities of having romance, a summer setting, low stakes, and are compulsively readable. I generally agree with these classifications, but I’d add that for me, a beach read needs to be something that I enjoy but also not too heavy or complex, something that I can set down for a quick dip in the water and then pick up again easily. Which, I think, leaves a lot of room for interpretation!
Obviously the books that my partner and I chose aren’t romances, and they aren’t low stakes. The Verifiers is about a young woman named Claudia working for a firm that confirms details people share in their dating profiles — sort of like a PI firm but pointedly not — who becomes enmeshed in the mystery of a suspicious death of a client. Hidden Pictures is about a nanny who becomes disturbed by the dark things her young charge draws, and begins to wonder if they’re not connected to an unsolved murder. But they are compulsively readable, and while each book explores big questions or ideas, they aren’t too mentally taxing. And while my book is actually set in fall rather than summer, I have to think that reading about Claudia’s misadventures in Manhattan in November made me appreciate the lake breeze and summer sun even more. So what makes mysteries and thrillers such compelling beach reads?
I think it’s because, like romance novels, they’re reliably predictable. I don’t mean predictable in the sense that we can always guess the killer or twist, but predictable in that readers know what to expect when cracking them open. Think about it — a good romance novel can be light and funny or more soulful and angsty, but we know when we pick one up that two people will embark upon a romantic relationship, and their happiness will be challenged by some conflict. But in the end, the lovers will prevail and they will get their happily ever after or happy for now ending. If they don’t, then it’s not a romance. Mysteries are very similar. We know that a crime will occur, and that a character or group of characters must solve the mystery. They will chase down clues and hunt for suspects, but by the end they will have solved the crime. While there are certainly exceptions, the protagonist usually survives to the end of the book. Thrillers and suspense novels are a little different in structure — there may be a mystery to solve but it’s not the primary goal of the protagonists — but they offer a similar formula: A character or group of characters discover that they are in danger, and they spend most of the book working to get out of danger. Usually, the protagonist survives!
I think it’s this predictability in formula, and the excitement that comes with seeing how an author can shake things up in terms of plot, character, and premise while still staying true to expected outcomes — a happily ever after, a solved crime, or characters finally ducking life-threatening danger — that makes us reach for these books when we head out for vacation. They’re fun escapes and they allow us to dip in and out of worlds that we like to participate in vicariously, without having to experience the danger or heartbreak for ourselves. And there is also something incredibly nice about sticking with predictable formulas when on vacation — you give your brain a break, while allowing yourself to be entertained but still stimulated.
Of course, if you like the best of both worlds, there are some really great mystery and thriller novels that have nice intersections with beach read attributes! How to Kill Your Best Friend by Lexie Elliott is a thriller set on a gorgeous tropical resort, and Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto is a funny thriller about hiding a dead body during a swanky wedding. We’ve got tons of recommendations for romantic murder mysteries, and mysteries and thrillers about vacations gone wrong.
So, no worries if you’re not a romance or fluffy fiction person! If dark and murder-y is more your vibe, then you can come sit next to us on the beach — you’ll be in good company!
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