My second novel, THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, is being released on Valentine’s Day — an ironic date, given that the book is anything but romantic. At the center of the story is a man who grew up in a wealthy, powerful family; his wives and girlfriends have a tendency to die or disappear in exotic places.
While I was writing the book, I occasionally wondered if people would think that idea too far-fetched. But at the same time, I was keenly aware of stories about women who’d been killed — or who had vanished — while traveling. There were three women in particular whose cases resonated with me, and I ended up mentioning them in the book.
One is Julie Ward, a wildlife photographer who was murdered in Kenya in 1988. The authorities, not wanting to disrupt their tourist trade, tried to pretend her death was a suicide, as if Ward had decided to hack herself apart with a machete. When that explanation was shown to be patently false, the authorities then blamed her death on wild animals. To this day, no one has been convicted of the crime, even though private investigators and Ward’s family have built a substantial case against a Kenyan man. Ward’s death was a terrible reminder that, in parts of the world that are dependent on their tourist trade, the desire to maintain the status quo can outweigh the desire for justice.
The other two women I mention are Natalee Holloway, the 18-year-old who disappeared in Aruba in 2005, and Stephany Flores Ramírez, a young woman who was murdered in Peru in 2010. Both Holloway and Flores were victims of the same man, a student from Holland named Joran van der Sloot. He was only 17 when Holloway vanished; while he was detained in that case, he hasn’t been convicted. He has confessed to, and was convicted of, Flores’ murder, and is now serving a 28-year sentence in Peru. It is believed that Holloway is deceased — on January 12, 2012, an Alabama judge declared her legally dead — but because Van der Sloot is believed to have sold other young women into sexual slavery, that possibility has been explored as well. Vander der Sloot has confessed, at different times, to different scenarios involving Holloway’s death or abduction, but he has retracted each statement.
I didn’t want to explore any of these cases in fiction — the story in THE NEXT ONE TO FALL doesn’t mirror any real-life case — but they were in my mind as I wrote. When I’ve traveled in South America, I’ve seen small shrines marking spots beside roads and highways, often at hairpin turns; they are put there by friends and family of people who’ve died in accidents, to warn others. Ward, Holloway and Flores are like warning beacons who forced me to keep in mind how vulnerable travelers can be, especially young female travelers. That’s something that I’ve never wanted to think about when I’ve been on the road, especially not while traveling alone.
The last thing I would want is for anyone to read about the dark side of travel and feel as if they shouldn’t explore the world. Travel does involve some risks, and those risks are well worth taking. The real danger is in not knowing whom to trust.