A bunch of old Oxford University friends get together every year for a New Year’s holiday, and this time they’ve come to a remote Scottish estate for the celebrations. However, early on New Year’s Day one of them goes missing, and the next day the murdered corpse is found by the estate staff. The estate is isolated from the rest of the world by a severe snowstorm. There’s a serial killer at large in the region. What’s going on?
The first thing to recognize is that most of the members of the party are ghastly. Two of them that initially I quite warmed to prove to be as ghastly as the others, if not ghastlier. A gay couple plus the couple with a small child aren’t as ghastly because we’re barely aware of them as characters; moreover, while they’re not ghastly now the two parents at least have clearly been ghastly in the past, back in their good ol’ uni days: they got their ghastliness in early, so to speak.
What’s clear is that, while all the guests are in one sense or another children of privilege, even if not necessarily born to money, it’s the ghastliest and most privileged of them all, Miranda, who’s the sun around which the others are planets in orbit. Most of the “planets” spend part of their time loving her and part of the time loathing her. She’s a sexual magnet, knows it, and uses this power to manipulate others and to cutely giggle her way out of the consequences of her cruelest and most obnoxious behavior.
The tale is told from multiple viewpoints by guests Emma, Katie and Miranda and staffers Heather and Doug. (For some reason Doug’s chapters are told in third person while the rest are in first person.) Heather and Doug both have awful secrets in their past that are slowly revealed to us; however, the secrets turn out to be not that awful. I liked these two quite a lot as people even while finding the others so objectionable. And both Heather and Doug are soon at the stage of being fit to vomit at so much as the sound of Miranda’s voice, which makes them A-OK people so far as I’m concerned.
One of the cover quotes on the book’s flap likens the tale to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, presumably because it features a group of people trapped in an isolated environment. Of course that setup is commonplace among classic detective novels, best epitomized by the snowed-in country-house party. (I think, anyway, the author of that quote was probably aiming for And Then There Were None and got the wrong Christie novel.)
Yet I’m not sure how apt any comparison with GAD (Golden Age Detection) might be. For a start, a main part of the mystery in The Hunting Party is the identity of the murdered person. Yet this isn’t a mystery at all to the participants: they know which of them went missing, so when the corpse is discovered it’s the fact of the murder that comes as a surprise to them, not who it was who was murdered. The sole reason we as readers don’t know who the victim is is that the author has chosen to withhold that information from us. In the eyes of the GAD authors, that would have been regarded as cheating.
(Yes, there are instances in GAD stories of unidentified victims, but in those cases the identity is also a mystery to the Great Detective and the other participants [murderer excluded, of course], not just to us poor readers.)
All that said, the identity of the victim is pretty bloody obvious from fairly early on — so much so that I was expecting to find at the end I’d been suckered, that it was someone else entirely. Nope.
While it might seem intimidating that so many of the characters are so unlikable, the chapters from the viewpoints of Heather and Doug serve as a sort of emotional grounding: they’re two lonely, damaged people in need of repair — a repair which each could possibly provide to the other — and yet they’re people of such fundamental integrity and with so many admirable qualities that it’s impossible, I’d think, not to be rooting for them. And, leaving aside all of these caveats, Foley proves herself here to be a pretty damn’ fine writer: although I wouldn’t say the book’s ever overwhelmingly suspenseful, it remains gripping simply because of the quality of the writing.
Alas, in its final fifty or seventy pages (I didn’t count) the novel seems to fall apart, at least for this reader. Returning to the GAD comparisons, if you’ve read a lot in that genre you’ll have come across novels where the author has suddenly introduced an International Criminal Conspiracy or a Nest of Foreign Spies to explain why Colonel Mustard was killed in the Library with the Iron Piping, or to provide a red herring in the way of the solution to that primary, heinous crime. Well there’s something of that sort goes on here.
In addition, there’s a sudden dollop of cod psychology delivered with all the subtlety of a hurled custard pie to explain the motivation of the murderer. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against cod psychology — jeez, but I’ve used it enough in my own fiction — yet here it had me simply rolling my eyes, in large part because it was so unnecessary. We’ve already more or less got the idea of the murderer’s “why” without having to have the whole lot spelled out to us.
The Hunting Party is a debut novel, and as such it has its forgivable faults. Foley is quite clearly, despite those, a writer to watch. I’ll be looking out for her next book: if it’s as good as this one it’ll be worth reading; if it’s better, as I’d expect, then, well, golly.