Dreaming up The Surprise Party

The Surprise Party is set in Loutró, a real village, on the rugged southern coast of Crete, an island I have returned to many times over the years.

I have passed the village several times on a ferry after hiking down the Samarian Gorge. I never stopped off, as it’s always a hurry after a day’s sweaty walking to get back to catch the last coach from Chora Sfakion to Chania, where, in order to ‘do’ the Gorge, you have to set out on a coach well before dawn.

Loutró, seen from the sea
Setting out. Proper boots, little dress, sturdy legs.

As a place that you can only get into by sea or on foot over rough terrain, Loutró has always fascinated me.

In the autumn of 2022, after dropping my mother off with my cousin who lives on the northern coast of Crete, I took off for a solo walking weekend in the south, planning, as Poppy does at the start of the novel, to walk the stretch of the E4 footpath which takes in Loutró. Finally I was going to put my feet down in this place that had tantalised me for thirty years!

Having heard the terrible news about the poor tourists who have fallen into deadly trouble this summer on Greek trails, I look back at what I did back then through a different lens. We always think we are invincible, don’t we? But the human body is so fragile.

My route took me through the most beautiful coastal scenery you could imagine – vast sandy sweeps of deserted beaches, olive and holm oak outcrops and, yes, sheer, terrifying drops. It was the autumn, so the heat wasn’t so intense as summertime, but it was still hotter than an English summer.

I took all the right precautions: I’m fit, and used to hill walking. I told my bemused hotel manager where I was going – he looked at me like I was mad – and I had water, food two excellent walking maps – one digital, one paper – and a large capacity spare battery for my phone. Even so, there were points where the path disappeared, there was no reception and, lacking a compass, I had to fudge my way. It would have been far too easy to fall and disappear. At one point, scrambling up a ravine, I completely lost any sense of a path, ending up having to scale some pretty steep rocks in order to keep going in what I guessed was the right direction. It was tough, but luckily my punt was a good one.

Where I lost the path
Where I found the path
One of the many beautiful beaches I passed

At the end of a very long final day, I reached the point where, in the book, there is a steep rock face and a dead goat. The cliff that originally bore the footpath had crumbled away and I couldn’t find the alternative route – it wasn’t on the paper map I had and my phone didn’t show it. I had to keep going forward to get to Loutró to catch the last boat back to Chora Sfakion where I was staying. I didn’t have the energy left to turn back and return along the challenging six hours or so to Agia Roumeli, the village I had set out from, and anyway it would soon be dark – and like many crime writers, I don’t do the dark.

So, very carefully, I edged down backwards, clinging on to the metal rope hammered into the rock face, praying that it would hold. Somehow, I met the bottom unscathed. But even now I think about what an idiot I was, and how it could have gone very wrong indeed for me. I was very lucky indeed.

Stopping for a tyropita (cheese pie)

All the time I was walking and not trying to work out the path, a story grew in my head. I’m a great fan of Agatha Christie and locked room murder mysteries – where there is a death and everyone is stuck in the place where it happened, unable to escape. By that final day, as I hurried along the relatively easy remaining part of my journey to Loutró, I already had my main characters in my head, and, as I passed the closed hotel on the bay before the ascent to Loutró, the idea of a body on one of the few sunbeds left out was so real, I almost saw it.

Recovery gigantes (beans) and horta (greens)
Well-earned rest on the beach at Loutro

As I sat in my hotel room in Chora Sfakion, soaking my feet, I scribbled out the notes that formed the starting point for the novel. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I have nurturing the idea and writing it. 

I will return to Loutró for more walking this autumn, but this time I’m taking someone with me!


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