book: An Unwanted Guest (2018) by Shari Lapena


I recently read Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party, about a group of privileged guests snowed in on a Scottish estate when murder strikes, and had (genuinely) mixed feelings about it: a lot that I liked but also quite a lot about which I was dubious. Someone (I’ve no idea who) suggested that Lapena’s An Unwanted Guest offered a better working-out of a similar premise, and so I decided to give it a try.

Various guests arrive, mainly in couples, for a weekend at the luxury Mitchell’s Inn in the Catskills, only for the snow to descend, the roads to block, the power to fail (wot, no generator?), the telephone lines to go down, all the usual. There’s no wifi. Cut off entirely from the outside world, the guests and the inn’s skeleton staff of two must cope with a series of murders . . . as, all the while, we learn of the nasty little secrets they’ve been keeping hidden from the world. If you’ve read much in the field, you’ll recognize the basic plot.

And again I had mixed feelings.

First, this is generally a less ambitious book than Foley’s, which seems to be concerned with social commentary along with the mystery and the claustrophobic threat. Lapena focuses instead on just telling a rattling good yarn. This is not to imply that one approach is better than the other: it’s simply a statement of fact. As a corollary, those of Foley’s characters (a minority) who develop over the course of the relevant few days do so more profoundly — or at least that’s what I sensed.

Leaving that aside, I spotted the guilty party some while before the reveal, but only on the basis of issues like opportunity: it was impossible even to guess at the character’s motivation because the relevant information upon which a hypothesis could be based was held back until the final pages. There’s also a last-minute twist that, again, I worked out in advance, although here the author played much more fairly with the reader.

Lapena gives us a present-tense narrative and, as seems to be the case four times out of five in such instances these days, mangles the use of the past tenses within that framework. (To be fair, this may be her copyeditor’s fault.) My reading was constantly being interrupted by little hiccups as a pluperfect was used where it should have been a perfect or imperfect. Grr!

Despite this, An Unwanted Guest offered a good fast read that kept me entertained while I was immersed in it. Quite how much of the book I’ll remember in a week’s time is another matter.

3 thoughts on “book: An Unwanted Guest (2018) by Shari Lapena

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