It could be argued that, boiled down to its essence, a good mystery novel only needs two key things to be right: the premise and the execution. An intriguing, unsettling or unusual set-up, carried off with flair and skill.
In fairness, the majority of crime stories come through with the first. Unfortunately, many of them falter badly with the second: either through flabby pacing, plot illogicality, clumsy prose, flat characterisation, "explain the plot" dialogue that doesn't ring true… or, in a few horrific cases which I'd sooner consign to the incinerator of memory, all of the above.
Happily enough The Guest List, Lucy Foley's follow-up to her bestseller The Hunting Party, is not among that number. This novel has a familiar but basically bulletproof premise, and the author drives on from that sound starting-point with great assurance, to deliver a mystery which is sometimes moving, often thrilling, always entertaining and, ultimately, very satisfying.
So what is this great set-up of which I speak? A high-flyer London couple - online publishing sensation Jules and Will, rising star of a Bear Grylls-esque TV show - are getting married. In a nod to her Irish roots (and, presumably, Foley's own: her grandfather came from Athenry in Co Galway), she decides to hold the ceremony on Inis Amplóir, a small fictional island off the Connemara coast.
It's a wildly beautiful but spooky old place, long abandoned but with new life now breathed into it by Aoife, a Dubliner wedding-planner who has converted an old Folly into a boutique venue, alongside her English chef husband Freddie.
A storm brews up the evening before the wedding, carrying on throughout the big day itself. Thus our cast of characters are temporarily trapped, both in the physical sense and, more pertinently for a mystery, psychologically. Simmering tensions become heightened, stress levels rise, old ghosts moan their way to the surface of different minds… even, a few times, actual ghosts seem to be casting their baleful eye over the guests.
On the guest list are rich and powerful English pals of the couple, including many of Will's former schoolmates from the Trevelyan boarding school - a nice nod from Foley to that real ghost of the Irish Famine past, the notorious British ruler namechecked in 'The Fields of Athenry'. They range from brash and entitled to obnoxious and menacing.
The book unfolds its story through the modern crime-fiction staple of multiple first-person narrators, giving contrasting perspectives on events as they unfold, shading in background and teasing out several intertwined strands of intrigue.
These are: Jules; her troubled teenage sister Olivia; Johnno, Will's falling-apart-at-the-seams best man; Hannah, the grounded wife of Charlie, Jules' best friend; and, towards the end, Will himself.
Almost everyone is burdened with some dark secret or memory. Jules recalls her indifferent mother and absent father; Olivia remembers a torrid affair that ended badly, and possibly violently; Hannah still feels agony over something that happened to her sister years before; Charlie suffered mysterious trauma on Will's stag night; Johnno hated his schooldays but simultaneously misses them. Even sensible, ultra-professional Aoife may be dealing with pain from her past.
Chronologically, we begin with the raucous, drink-sodden night of the wedding, when the lights fail in the party marquee 50 yards from the Folly and a young waitress rushes in, screaming about seeing a body soaked in blood. Foley then cuts back and forth between the present - as some Old Trevelyans venture out into the storm to investigate - and the past two days, leading up to this death.
Is there even a body out there, or are the island and the elements playing tricks on everyone's minds?
Rather cleverly, the book doesn't confirm this, or reveal the identity of our victim, until late on - so as well as a whodunnit, The Guest List is also a "who had it done to them?" Foley draws the disparate plot strands together so smoothly, the novel is a joy to read. The old reviewers' maxim, "You'll want to finish this in one sitting", really applies here: each chapter ends with just enough intrigue and mystery to make it nigh-on impossible to put aside. And the closing chapters, with their repeated refrain of "and then the lights go out", marry great kinetic energy to a surprising and lovely lyricism.
There are one or two late twists that don't fully work; essentially, some of these characters are connected and reconnected in so many ways that suspension of disbelief is strained. Not quite to breaking point, though: for one thing, you don't mind mildly implausible plot mechanics in a thriller, and more importantly, the book as a whole is so thoroughly enjoyable that you probably wouldn't care if it turned out the ghost of Peig Sayers was responsible.
Spoiler alert: it wasn't her. You may or may not be wrong-footed when the actual killer is revealed - I'm normally hopeless at figuring out these things, but for once made the correct guess about 50 pages from the end.
And it's well-earned: both the killing itself, with its nicely Old Testament feel of righteous justice being dispensed, and the story's conclusion, which brings this fine novel to a fulfilling end.
Darragh McManus's books include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through' and 'The Polka Dot Girl'