One brisk morning in late September, as I arrived still a little drunk to a 9 a.m. wine tasting, I thought back to the previous evening. A cruise ship employee had led me off the vessel and to an underlit cellar, where I found an elderly former Austrian homicide detective awaiting me. He had a slideshow prepared, mainly of graphic photos of decomposing women. This was a capstone of sorts to a week where I had received ominous type-written notes resting on my pillow night after night, as new friends and I wondered who might be murdered before the week was out. As I had many times in the previous four days, I contemplated the decisions that had brought me here. But then the riesling breakfast began to do its job. I shrugged. So began another day on the Gone Girl cruise.
Yes, the Gone Girl cruise. In July, Gillian Flynn, the author of the blockbuster thriller, declared to her followers online, “There are still tickets available to join me on the Avalon Waterways GONE GIRL CRUISE.” She added: “I will be selecting both by raffle and by means and opportunity a special passenger to murder!”
This understandably went viral. It demanded answers. What do you mean, Gone Girl cruise? How can a cruise be themed around a book about a woman faking her own abduction to take revenge on her partner? Why is it taking place on the Danube? (Is the book not set in Missouri?) Who is going to book this cruise, and why? Why is Flynn doing this? Would the novel be admissible evidence in court if I booked my shithead husband and I to go on this cruise and then he mysteriously disappeared?
There was only one way to answer these questions, and only one response when my editor asked me to be the person to answer them: Yes, oh my God, of course I will go on an eight-day Gone Girl–themed cruise down the Danube! What kind of a question is that?
If only I knew.
One Day Gone
Flynn’s three novels, Gone Girl (2012), Dark Places (2009), and Sharp Objects (2006), are very good books. I finish the last of them in the car on the way from the Budapest airport to the port in the center of town. Flynn is an unimpeachable plotter and a brilliant stylist at the sentence level. She is, rightly, a massively successful author.
None of these facts made it any clearer to me why I am about to board a ship to spend eight days with her.
Avalon View is a river cruise ship operated by Avalon Waterways, the newest in its fleet. It has a total of 83 rooms split over three floors, accommodation for 166 passengers and 47 staff. All beds face the windows. I am staying on the top floor, the Royal Deck. My room has floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall sliding doors and a television showing rolling coverage of all the extraordinary excursions awaiting us in the coming days. On the screen, muscular men with full heads of elegantly graying hair row kayaks, hike European hills, and show their expensive teeth as they raise a glass at dinner to the good health of their hot wives.
Suddenly, an alarm goes off across the whole ship, and a speaker instructs the Avalon View staff to “assume the position.” There is a mandatory safety briefing. I venture to the Panorama Lounge, the primary entertainment area on the ship and location of the crucial bar. Other cruisers have already arrived, busily making friends with one another.
I had wondered who my fellow travelers might be. A Gone Girl–themed vacation suggested geriatric millennials—probably women, probably thriller nerds, maybe a certain number of people who secretly hate their husbands—but “river cruise” suggested pensioners. There look to be about 70 people in the room, other than the ship’s captain and the handful of Avalon staff. They are mostly 50-plus of an even gender split. From the sounds of their voices, they are all American. I am given a glass of Champagne, the first of dozens and dozens of drinks thrust into my hands over the course of this trip, to my eventual great distress.
“Do we have time for another martini?” one guest shouts, to uproarious laughter, as the safety briefing begins. Our guide tells us to follow all signage on the ship, lest we end up like a man on a competitor ship, who went up onto the ship’s roof when it was off limits and was beheaded by a low bridge. “Good riddance!” the same man as before—let’s call him Jake—shouts, to a less good reception than last time.
Gillian Flynn is here too, seated near the window with a party of friends. She waves as our guide begins to describe what it is we might be doing here.
“I’d like to talk about the idea that females can be villains,” the host tells us. “Right? And Miss Gillian Flynn has brought that to our culture. And the idea that women don’t have to be flowery and really sweet. Women can be dicks.”
All the women in the room—and some of the braver men—voice their agreement.
“You have all gone to really incredible lengths to be here today,” she continues. “And that is not lost on the team at Avalon. We know that it’s just not extremely easy to travel right now.”
We set sail. There is a four-course sit-down dinner every night in the dining room, just below the Panorama Lounge. The menu is made up of food local to the region, but if a “trilogy of mini lángos” does not appeal, there is steak and Caesar salad. I sit with a woman from Avalon and her friend, which is how I find out that the ship is at around 40 percent capacity, with 90 percent American clientele, and that the friend’s daughter is dating a Mormon.
Back in my room after dinner, I find a note on my bed with a bloody handprint on it. It reads: “We will have a happy journey if it kills us …”
Two Days Gone
I was not aware, before coming on this cruise, that cruise ships often dock side by side, like sardines in a can. What this means is that when I wake up on my first full day on board and throw open my curtains, the man staying in the bedroom on the opposite ship and I scare the living daylights out of each other, before I quickly draw them shut again.
Each day, a newsletter on the daily excursion options arrives on my phone. I have already missed breakfast and Pilates, but I am in time for the lunch buffet. Here, as I eat some goulash and Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” plays softly over the dining room speakers, I overhear two women speculating that perhaps there aren’t many people here because Americans don’t want to be this close to Ukraine. I wonder whether there might be other reasons that a Gone Girl river cruise is sparsely populated.
Walking tours are a staple of cruise-ship entertainment. It is, I suppose, the great advantage of cruising: the ability to wake up in a new place every morning and soak up as much local culture as possible. On every walking tour I do this week, I take a pathetic British person’s pleasure in the plausibly deniable anti-American humor employed by the tour guides. “Here is McDonald’s, an American restaurant that is popular with children,” our guide in Bratislava tells us, dryly.
On this tour, we also get to taste some local honey, all of us standing around licking popsicle sticks and saying how much it does indeed taste like honey.
I notice that Flynn herself is not on this tour. Every day there is a choice of excursions, and it seems she has gone on the Slovakian hillside hike instead. If I am to get to the bottom of why this cruise exists and what’s in it for her, I am going to have to go for the sportier activities.
Before dinner this and every night, we get a briefing in the Panorama Lounge about the events of the next 24 hours. These are the times I use to select my next victims: the people I will force to allow me to join them for meals. I spy a group of five friendly looking older ladies and swoop.
Nancy and Barb are neighbors from Iowa. Martha and Barb are friends from Missouri, and they have picked up Judith, from Florida, who is cruising alone because of her husband’s ill health. They are unspeakably nice to me. I hear the word “neat” more times over the course of this dinner than I have heard in my 30 years of life previous to it. I am shocked to find out that Nancy, looking as sprightly as she does, is 81, and I tell her so. “Well, baby, you don’t look a day over 12,” she says.
“Oh, we love Gone Girl,” one of the Barbs says. “Great page turner, and she has such a dark mind. You wouldn’t know to look at her.”
We all do look at her, sitting across the dining room with her group of friends.
“Is there much onion in the onion tart?” the other Barb asks a waiter. There is.
The wine man’s overzealous pouring means that the dance floor is packed when a cruise musician gets going. Jake, fast securing his spot as Cruise Joker, requests “Wonderwall” and is told no. A father and daughter from Colorado throw insane shapes to Ed Sheeran.
As the band plays “Suspicious Minds,” which someone requested in honor of the cruise’s theme, I slip away to my room. Here, I find another note laid on my bed, typewritten, in a white paper envelope:
“If somebody says, ‘Bless your heart,’ what they really mean is ‘fuck you.’ “
Three Days Gone
I join the Golden Girls again for breakfast, which includes boiled frankfurters and eggs every way that cuisine has so far devised. We analyze the meaning of the notes left on the beds. Everybody got a different one.
“Something about a beautiful woman scorned? I can’t remember,” Martha says. A murder mystery seems likely. Everyone agrees that they are very excited to find out who is murdered.
At lunch, I get talking to Katya, one of very few young-looking people on the boat. She is 24, from Russia, wearing a Prada Frankenstein shirt, and this is the first of two cruises she’s taking this month. She’s a big fan of Flynn’s, “unlike some people here who haven’t even heard of her,” she tells me.
At dinner, I have this confirmed. Tonight’s victims of my company are Monica and Kathleen, two women in their 70s from Vancouver, British Columbia, who invite me to come and stay with them there within 10 minutes of my sitting down. They are wearing matching pink T-shirts that read “Girls trip 2022: cheaper than therapy.” They didn’t know it was a Gone Girl–themed cruise until they boarded the ship. “We thought it was like: You’re gone, girl! Like it was a women’s travel thing,” one said.
Tonight, there is an optional excursion to a classical music concert, which most of the guests sign up for. As our coaches pull away from the dock and the lights go down, Jake yells, “No kissing!” to a smattering of polite laughter. When he shouts, “Noodle King!” at the sight of a restaurant called Noodle King, nobody responds at all.
A few hours later, I go out to the back of the boat for a cigarette, because yesterday another guest and I mutually busted each other smoking out of our stateroom windows. I walk out onto the stern of the ship, where the wake is frothing into the black behind us. I realize that there is someone else there, smoking a solitary cigarette in the half-light. Here is Gillian Flynn.
Dry but warm, Flynn is easy to talk to. I begin to get some answers. She tells me she’s here with her husband and some friends of hers from her journalism master’s program. (She used to work at Entertainment Weekly as a television critic.) But before we can talk any more, her husband, Brett, comes out with his apologies to fetch her to talk to their kids on the phone.
In a moment, she is gone, and I am no closer to the truth.
Still Vienna, Austria
Four Days Gone
Chipper Midwestern American manners are, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, an acquired taste to someone born and bred in England. I find it challenging to know what to do with my face when Larry, a man in his 80s, comes up to me at the lunch buffet and shows me a video on his phone he thinks I’ll like, which is a three-minute-long morphing montage of Queen Elizabeth II’s appearance over her lifetime. Later, he will accuse me only partly in jest of stealing his phone, because showing me this video is the last time he saw it.
Maybe it isn’t Larry’s fault. I feel like a lotus-eater at this point, unable to move without being offered a praline, a sausage roll, a spinach pastry, a cocktail, a glass of sparkling wine, a little piece of brie with a grape on it. I am drunk and adrift on this river.
Then, at tonight’s port talk, there is an ominous development: There will be a mystery tour after dinner. We are warned that we will be off the boat until late at night.
I have dinner with a big group: Rob, who caught me smoking, and his wife, Jenny, from Colorado; Jenny’s sister, Melissa, and their parents, Linda and Larry, who has still not found his phone. They are on a mission to get wasted during this dinner, a mission they accomplish. We play a round of two truths and a lie, during which Linda reveals that she had never had an orgasm until she was 26, which is a memorable thing to hear a family of drunken strangers discuss. Also with us are Tanya and John, a couple from San Francisco. “Don’t you think it’s a little weird, the Gillian Flynn thing?” Tanya asks me.
Tonight, it gets weirder. After dinner, we are loaded onto coaches again and driven out of Vienna into the Austrian countryside. As we drive, to establish a tone of macabre intrigue, a tour guide tells us the story of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian who held his daughter as a prisoner and raped her over 24 years, on a speaker in great detail.
We arrive at our mystery location about half an hour later: a dirt track where tour guides with flaming torches lead us down into a cellar. Inside the cellar, there is yet more wine, and a slideshow screen set up in front of rows of fold-out chairs. What happened next was one of the strangest evenings I have ever spent.
The ex-chief of Vienna’s homicide unit, a don’t-fuck-with-me man in his 70s who looks exactly like an ex-chief of Vienna’s homicide unit, is here to regale us with the true tale of his most notorious case: that of the serial killer Jack Unterweger, who killed at least 12 sex workers before his suicide in the 1990s. As the slideshow begins, I hear one man a few rows back say to his wife, “Gee, I hope we’re not gonna see any dead bodies.”
There are dead bodies. We see at least a half-dozen total, in states of truly hideous decay. Some of the particulars of things I saw on that slideshow will remain in my memory until I die. Gasps rippled around the room. People covered their eyes, turned from the screen. Several left in disgust. Jenny, who was sitting next to me, admitted halfway through this slideshow that she had got too stoned before we got on the coach.
“What the fuck is happening?” she whispered.
“They’re showing us pictures of dead bodies,” I whispered back.
“Still? It’s been two hours.”
“It’s been 20 minutes.”
“No way,” she said, turning back to the decomposing genitals in front of us. Five minutes later, we have exactly the same conversation.
Five Days Gone
There is no rest for the wicked on a cruise, and by 9 a.m. the following morning, I find myself at the wine tasting, swilling riesling next to Katya, the Russian girl. She is in more Prada and still drunk from the night before, because she stayed up playing a raucous round of Uno with some people from Wisconsin.
We get yet more drinks served before this afternoon’s book signing in the Panorama Lounge, the first expressly Gillian Flynn–themed event. There is a table wrapped in crime-scene tape and a pool of blood on the floor, which I glean is the best spot to stand in to have your photo taken. Tanya sits down next to me as we wait to get our books signed and tells me what she thought of last night’s show: “I thought it was horrible, in such poor taste. The bodies of those prostitutes. It was so sad.” Other cruisers saw it differently. “I was a little shocked by the dead bodies, I thought there would be a warning. But I love that stuff,” said Monica, who really took it in stride for someone who—I’ll say it again—did not know this was a Gone Girl–themed cruise.
Throw any group of people together for five days, and resentments will begin to form. There is something about a cruise, the enforced intimacy between a set cast of characters but changing scenarios each day, that seems particularly ripe for drama. Countless writers of fiction over the years have known it. Tanya and I trade notes. I hate Jake, the joker, and she hates “the tall man who looks like a wolf.” Rob from Colorado also hates Jake and thinks a group of people I’ve not met are snooty assholes. Two friends of Gillian’s, Scott and Maggie, tell me one night at the bar that they find it weird that one woman keeps wanting to talk to them about “butt sex.” At this evening’s tour of “Clam castle”—presided over by the head of the Clam family, a man who has apparently been going around his whole life introducing himself as Count Clam—Nancy takes me aside and says that she’s had it up to here with Judith from Florida, because she talks too much and always needs to be right.
On my bed tonight is another typewritten quote: “To pretend to be calm is to be calm, in a way.”
Wachau Valley, Austria
Six Days Gone
I feel it is my duty to report that one of the excursions on the agenda for a thriller-themed cruise was a trip to the Mauthausen concentration camp. I don’t feel the need to say anything more about this here, other than that it was of course harrowing, and just as bizarre to include on this itinerary as you might imagine. No one brings up Gone Girl for several hours.
Later that day, I once again lay eyes on Gillian Flynn. At an open session, she talks about her next book (set in Chicago), and whether she knows what the twists are in her books before she sets out to write them (never). Perhaps cued by the staff who introduced her, she talks about how important it is to her to write women who are not likable, women who are nasty—women who are dicks.
Directly after, an extremely arch beauty industry professional from Essex, England, who is here with his husband, has some complaints. He tells me that he doesn’t care about Gillian Flynn. The cruise is all old people. He’s been on a Royal Caribbean cruise before and said that was much better, and then interrupted himself halfway through a sentence to tell me to “stop frowning, it’s bad for your forehead wrinkles.” He is an excellent source for more insight into who hates one another.
Even so, friendships start to form, too. A cruise is, it seems, unavoidably corny. There is just no getting around the fact that sometimes you will be listening to “The Living Years” by Mike + the Mechanics while you make your own Buddha bowl at the lunch buffet and watch people try to get their photograph taken with a double rainbow out of the window. Martha, Nancy, Judith, and the Barbs begin to refer to me as “our girl,” which only makes me nearly well up with emotion once, after many of the accursed cruise drinks. Today, Katya watches the queen’s funeral with me in the Club Lounge and shares a packet of fudge and the rosé she keeps stashed in her stateroom. I start to feel a little queasy about my role on this ship: to observe and assess strangers. But mostly I feel queasy because I have been drinking relentlessly, all day, for six days.
Although tonight is not the last night, it is “Gala night,” so that everyone can stay up late without worrying about their flight the next morning. There is special entertainment: an Andrews Sisters tribute act, a phenomenon my new, elderly friends find troubling that I have not even heard of. They sing 1940s standards and ABBA, as cruisers who did not know the first thing about one another last week waltz one another round, buy one another drinks, and laugh until they cry.
Seven Days Gone
I cannot bring myself to attend the 8:30 a.m. beer tasting at a Trappist monastery. But my last full day includes a hike in the Austrian mountains, on which everyone is gratified to see a nun. I discover that there has been a hot tub on board, on the Sky Deck, this whole time. On the agenda for this evening is a final dinner—and no murder mystery.
Indeed, despite the cryptic notes, there never was one. No one will be killed, at least not intentionally. (Since 2000, more than 200 people have gone missing from ships like this one.) The last bit of entertainment planned for us is a screening of No Time to Die, which is perhaps the funniest thing they could have done on a cruise that is expressly themed around a book with a widely beloved film adaptation.
While I was on the boat, people at home texted me with concern, as though I was doing jury duty on some kind of harrowing murder. “Why would Gillian Flynn want to do this cruise?” one asked.
Which is the wrong question. I know, because late on this last night, I finally got in front of Flynn to chain-smoke (she only does this on vacation or when she’s having trouble writing, she noted) on the Sky Deck and ask her how this all came about.
“They contacted me out of the blue, and I thought, ‘Why in the world would I not do that? Are you kidding me?’ ” she said. All the people she brought with her are people who were in her wedding. “It’s about to be our 15th anniversary in November. So we were like, this would be the perfect thing to reunite everyone.”
It was obvious, really: If you wrote a bestselling book, and 10 years later someone said, “Do you want to go on a cruise about it and bring a bunch of your friends?,” you would indeed go. Besides, the dynamics of a cruise struck her a certain kind of way, too.
“I’ve never written a closed-door mystery, but I love them. Death on the Nile, of course, and that idea of strangers being put together,” she said. “There’s a phrase that is now overused, but it’s so true: Everyone is fighting their mighty battle. Everyone has that secret thing that they struggle with; everyone has a story. Even the people that you want to characterize as ‘this person has the perfect life, this person has a boring life,’ whatever it is that you’re assuming, it’s wrong.”
Indeed, after seven days afloat, I was wrong about many of the people I met: made fast judgments about them that had much more to do with my own desire to write a fun little story than who they were. It was a Gone Girl–themed cruise for me, in that I boarded this ship as my own unlikable female narrator, a woman who is a dick: snarky, self-satisfied, looking for opportunities to gawk at people instead of to listen to them.
Plenty of what I’d learned had been at least a little funny: How Rob came to be smoking a joint with Kanye West. How Linda got her retina detached and had to lie down for six weeks, eating all her meals through the head hole in a massage chair. Even Jake rose in my estimations, as most people will if you stay up until 3 in the morning chatting shit with them.
But eight days on a boat with large volumes of prepaid alcohol will have people telling you the tragedies of their lives, too. I commiserated with people about their painful divorces, their difficult relationships with their stepchildren. I heard about family estrangements. Katya wanted us to raise a glass together when we were watching the queen’s funeral, not for the queen, but for her friend who died in a car crash. Larry and Linda are here with their two adult daughters for what they think could be the last time the four of them are in good enough health to travel together. One person, and I promise you this is true, learned that her husband had gone missing from rehab while she was on a Gone Girl–themed cruise (he turned up, at the house of another woman). I held Nancy’s hand one night in the Panorama Lounge after we had drunk far too much wine as she told me that her husband and her son had died within 17 months of each other. She was here on the cruise with Barb because Barb moved in next door to her around that time, and Barb’s husband suddenly passed away too. This was their third river cruise together.
The problem with the cruise hasn’t been the theme, really. The problem with the cruise has, to an extent, been me.
Eight Days Gone
I left the ship just outside Munich early on a misty morning. Yes, some of the activities were a little … misjudged. Yes, I would probably not put myself through a solo cruise experience again other than in exchange for money. But I felt I had answered the question I boarded the ship with, or at least answered it with another question: Why would someone go on a Gone Girl–themed river cruise, or even a cruise in general?
Names of cruisegoers in this piece have been changed.