As Hospitality Editor at INTERIORS Magazine I wrote about the architecture and design of hotels and restaurants. On one hand, architects and designers love to have their projects published, as it enhances their status which in turn helps them get more work. On the other hand, having a restaurant or hotel publishing in a design magazine adds value to the property. So, having the power to praise these projects in print, I got the royal treatment from both ends, and as a result I ate in a lot of great restaurants on the house, and I stayed for free in some posh hotels, the kind I could never in a million years afford on my Associate Editor salary. I visited multiple Caribbean Islands, Bali, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Mexico, Moscow, Hong Kong, and dozens of U.S. states and cities, and I rarely if ever paid for the travel or the hotel room. At the magazine, we avoided the ethical trade-off implicit in all this free stuff—to some extent anyway—by only visiting and publishing projects that we really liked.
While a few of these were private trips just for the two of us, many were press “junkets,” where a hotel’s PR people would invite a bunch of writers and photographers and whoever else they thought might help their hotel publicity cause. On one of the very first press junkets I went on, my partner and I and about 25 or 30 other reporters, editors, writers, etc., went down for a five day weekend at the Grand Lido, a high-end all-inclusive resort that had just opened on Jamaica’s northern coast, not far from Ocho Rios. Believe me, a Caribbean trip out of New York City in February is a gift from whatever gods you believe in. From 8 degrees to 80 degrees in six hours.
This was the junket that inspired MURDER ON NAKED BEACH, my first mystery. Every character in that book is based on someone who either went on the press trip or worked at the hotel or in the Jamaican tourist industry. One of these characters was a pompous, obnoxious late middle-aged magazine writer, a jerk who spent the entire trip being rude to not only the hotel staff and the PR people but half the writers and other junketeers as well. A truly obnoxious character.
So I killed him off!! Ha! Only in the book, and it wasn’t me that done it.
No, nobody killed him off in real life, although plenty of us wanted to.
Yes, the prime minister of Jamaica did come to the hotel and make an opening day speech, a bit less challenging to the hotel management than the one I wrote for him in the book. And I did eat a magic mushroom omelet and attempt to go waterskiing afterwards. Right past the dedicated nudist island that lay a hundred yards offshore of the hotel.
So: nobody went crazy, there was no murder and there were no drug deals, none of that, but plenty of strange, reality-based characters and colorful scenery and everything else that brings a story to life. I had a lot of fun re-inventing many real people I met–and either liked or found contemptible–as characters in the book, then letting them loose. One thing you discover with fictional characters, whether based on real people or not, is that they often take matters into their own hands and start behaving in ways you really don’t expect. For me, this is when things get really interesting: when the book starts to write itself.
Jamaica, where I set Murder on Naked Beach, is a strange island. In spite of some environmental degradation it is like every Caribbean island exquisitely beautiful in the way of mountainous tropical islands ringed with gorgeous beaches. There is a secret tribe of runaway slaves in the mountains called the Maroons, who’ve run their own little country up there for over a century.
Very few white people ever travel up into those mountains or over to the island’s main city, Kingston, on the south coast, but rather stay on the north site, cruising between the tourist destinations of Negril, Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, and Port Antonio at the far end. Negril is Jamaica’s original hippie outpost, and the scene there remains more Rastafarian peaceful than violent, the way it can get down Kingston way. The restaurants, tourist attractions, and other stuff I used as backdrops in the book remain in place, as far as I know and can tell from reading the travel advertisements in the New York Times.
If you should happen to go to Jamaica, most likely you’ll end up on the northern coast. If Kingston today is anything at all like the Kingston described in a scarily violent novel I just finished reading, you’ll want to stay out of Kingston. The book is called A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James, and it is raw, nasty and dangerous. If you want to visit Jamaica, don’t read this book, read my merry little mystery instead, stay on the north coast, and don’t get sunburned.
Mexico resembles Jamaica in that it has gotten a lot of bad press—in Mexico’s case more than is deserves coming from the gun-crazed United States–yet Mexico does have huge and seemingly intractable problems with drug-cartel-driven violence as well as corruption at nearly every level of government.
However, since I have set two of my books partly in Mexico, and I have spent a fair amount of time there, I want to rise to that lovely country’s defense even before I get into the books I set there. Mexico has its danger zones, mostly along the border and a few select cities and provinces, but as a tourist flying in or even driving in, if you travel by day and stick to the main roads, chances are you will encounter no trouble as long as you don’t go over the speed limit when traveling on surface roads. Safest of all is to stick to the Cuota, or toll road. This pricey highway is by far the easiest way to get around in Mexico, if you’re driving, and also the fastest and safest—there are small but undeniable odds that on a regular road or highway you might get pulled over or roadblocked by a real cop looking for his daily mordida (bribe) or a fake cop or fake army unit looking to steal everything you own.
Don’t be alarmed—such events rarely happen during the day and usually only in areas that have been labeled as no travel zones by the State Department. Other than that, well, every country has its petty criminals, robbers, burglars, car thieves, and so on—but unlike the United States, in Mexico 99 per cent of the general public would not dream of owning a gun or using one. It’s that cartel one per cent you want to watch out for, and they generally keep to their own territory and murder each other rather than innocent citizens or tourists. Unless those citizens are political radicals or those tourists are looking for, say hard drugs or loose women in the middle of the night. But where is that not dangerous?
If any readers or would-be travelers have any questions to ask me about what I know of Jamaica—a little—or Mexico—a fair amount, feel free to do so on the Lucy Ripken Facebook page. Any critiques or questions about the books are also welcome as are, above all, good reviews! If you read one and liked it, take five minutes to tell the world why. Please.