Monday 22 October 2018

An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena - Big-chill mystery exerts icy grip despite a familiar plot

Thriller: An Unwanted Guest, Shari Lapena, Bantam Press, hardback, 304 pages, €16

Too many suspects: Lapena has assembled a universally disagreeable ensemble
Too many suspects: Lapena has assembled a universally disagreeable ensemble
An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena

Since shooting onto the fiction charts with The Couple Next Door in 2016, Shari Lapena has established herself as one of the biggest names in the domestic thriller genre that has proved a publishing phenomenon.

The former lawyer and teacher from Toronto is enjoying enormous success, with her debut selling over a million copies and her follow-up, A Stranger in the House, rocketing to the top of the bestseller list, too.

Now Lapena is back with An Unwanted Guest, her third novel in as many years, this time blending the psychological thrills her fans love with an old-fashioned locked-room mystery.

A cast of 12 has assembled for a weekend getaway at the Mitchell Inn, an intimate hotel nestled in a snowy forest in the Catskill Mountains. Along with the father and son who run the hotel, the guests include best friends who have grown apart, young lovers seeking time alone, a handsome heir and his beautiful fiancée, a middle-aged couple trying to reconnect, an author working on her book, and a reticent lawyer looking to escape for a few days.

They arrive in the middle of a storm, which shows no signs of abating. As the snow grows heavier, the roads become blocked, the phone signal dies and the group find themselves trapped inside the hotel.

Following a tense round of drinks and a quiet dinner, the guests turn in, still optimistic of having a relaxing trip. Their hopes of a restful weekend, of course, are dashed when they wake up to a dead body on the stairs.

They discover the electricity is gone, leaving them cut off from emergency services and the outside world. They alone must attempt to identify the killer in their midst as the bodies start to pile up.

Writers shouldn't have to provide likeable characters, but this universally disagreeable ensemble makes it difficult to invest in the murders.

All the same, Lapena has a good grasp of her vast group, and while they remain mostly two-dimensional, she does a solid job of making each one memorable and a viable suspect.

But Lapena's homage to classics of the genre is disappointingly derivative - An Unwanted Guest reads like a very familiar, yet enjoyable, riff on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.

Save a delicious final-page twist, the clever plotting mostly fizzles out by the end and the story is let down by some lazy, choppy writing ("Riley is glad that David is gone. She thinks he's reckless, and she's glad he's gone"). There are clues leading readers to guess the killer, but the ultimate reveal relies on a heap of complex backstory, explained in a flat, meandering monologue.

There are at least two too many bodies to keep track of, and in the latter half, the story tests the limits of plausibility, particularly a fireside chat during which the characters methodically unload their deepest secrets to each other.

Where Lapena excels is in creating atmosphere. The Mitchell Inn may be an underwhelming title (it's certainly no Overlook Hotel), but it's the perfect setting for her whodunnit.

The secluded mountain retreat, "covered in a pure, muffling white snow", transitions seamlessly from cosy and romantic to horrifying: with no lights, phones or internet, the sense of isolation is palpable, and to make matters worse, the group must preserve evidence by leaving the corpse lying on the stairs until the police can be reached.

It makes for gripping reading, and if you're not fussed about originality, An Unwanted Guest is an ideal book to be devoured in the space of a few hours.

If you're a fan of Lapena's previous novels, you're sure to tear through her latest in one sitting. It's an arguably stronger work than The Couple Next Door, largely thanks to that chilly suspense that keeps readers guessing up to the very last page, and Lapena skilfully ramping up the tension by switching perspectives among the group.

While the icy setting is wonderfully rendered, it strikes as an odd choice to market for the summer beach reader. I would much prefer this as a wintertime treat, one to blaze through by the fire on a frozen afternoon. A light and fun, if forgettable, thrill.

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