By Madiha Akhtar
A remote location, an isolated hotel, 12 strangers, no connection with the outside world and one murder: this is the premise of Shari Lapena’s latest thriller, An Unwanted Guest.
Lapena is a Canadian novelist known for her two bestselling mysteries, The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the House. Her latest book, in which she skilfully blends psychological thrills with a locked-room mystery, is full of chilling suspense, intriguing clues, mind games, complex characters and plot twists that will keep readers guessing till the end.
The story starts with a group of 10 guests who arrive for a weekend getaway at Mitchell’s Inn, a quiet, cosy and remote hotel nestled in the picturesque Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. The inn is owned by James, who runs this family business with his young son, Bradley. The old-fashioned architecture of the hotel takes readers back to the 19th century with gorgeous guest rooms, plush armchairs, roaring fireplaces, grand staircases, a library full of mystery novels and no WiFi or internet.
Among the guests is a pair of best friends: Gwen Delaney, who works in a corporate organisation and Riley Shuter, a war correspondent suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after coming back from Afghanistan. Gwen thinks the quiet atmosphere of the inn is perfect for her friend and may help Riley find relief from the tortured past, even if for a few brief days. There is David Paley, a top criminal attorney looking for an escape from his stressful job and his dark past. Handsome heir Matthew Hutchinson and his beautiful fiancée Dana Hart want to spend some time alone with each other away from the madness generated by their upcoming wedding. Another couple, Ian Beeton and Lauren Day, very much in love, are also there to enjoy each other’s company and strengthen their relationship. Beverly Sullivan is a middle-aged wife taking time off from children, the house and work to get her marriage to Henry back on track. Last of all is Candice White, an aging author looking to complete the book that will finally give her career the kind of acclaim she’s always wanted.
Because of a violent snowstorm that begins as the guests arrive, the staff is extremely limited. James is managing the kitchen while Bradley checks the guests in and tends the bar. The first night at the inn is lively and filled with laughter. After getting drinks and enjoying a small buffet, some of the guests make their way to the expansive library. As they peruse the various titles, Gwen remarks, “I love a good murder mystery.”
Ironic, since she will be part of one herself.
The dream vacation turns into a nightmare when Dana’s dead body is discovered the next day at the foot of the hotel’s grand staircase. At first, everyone thinks it might have been an unfortunate stumble, but David is sceptical and he soon finds out that this is no accident.
Somebody murdered Dana. The police can’t be called since the blizzard has disrupted telephone lines and mobile signals as well as blocked the roads, so the morbid decision is made to leave Dana’s body where it is and cover it with a sheet.
When Candice, who had isolated herself in her room to write, is the second person found dead, fear escalates to sheer panic. Led by David, the remaining guests begin to probe for the killer, but realisation soon sets in that the murderer might not be an unknown entity hiding in the shadows, but one of them — as Henry says, “It feels like they are playing at something, some sort of parlour game or murder mystery evening with the lights out. Only no one’s having fun.”
Tensions run high, accusations are hurled and suspicions are voiced. In a bid to uncover motive, the guests begin to seek out each other’s pasts and deepest secrets. Each character has a story to tell, a secret to hide and, as their personal histories begin to unfold, readers are given the opportunity to pick up clues that might point towards the killer.
An Unwanted Guest is a pretty quick read and, clichéd as it may sound, I finished it in one sitting. The twisting whodunnit is surprising and gratifying, and Lapena’s writing is impressive; she knows exactly how to hook the reader and keep the story moving. The claustrophobic setting, the unexpected deaths and the limited number of suspects are all classic ingredients reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, where 10 strangers with apparently little in common are lured to an island mansion. However, this is intentional as Lapena wanted to pay homage to Christie: during a scene when Bradley says he prefers putting out books instead of flowers for guests, Lauren replies, “I found the old Agatha Christie on my bedside table.” Moreover, in an interview with a readers’ blog, Lapena shared that the backdrop of her novel was inspired by the old-school ambient glamour of a Christie novel.
Beginning the book, I was worried I would lose track and become confused because of the quick succession in which she introduces the guests at the inn, but Lapena draws each character with care, allowing readers to remember them. It is also a good idea to pay attention to every detail of the story because while there are a few obvious clues, the truth relies on a heap of complex backstory which is explained in a meandering monologue by Lauren at the end of the novel. Admittedly, the plot does kind of fizzle out near the end because of some lazy and irregular writing, but the author makes up for it with a shocking reveal on the last page that I never saw coming — which is exactly what one expects from a murder mystery.
What I can definitely see coming, however, is a film made on this gripping book, just like Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
An Unwanted Guest
By Shari Lapena
Political chemistry has changed
By Manini Chatterjee
The contest for 2019 is no longer a one-horse race; it has been thrown wide open.
Less than six months before the general election, the BJP received its biggest setback since it came to power in 2014 just as the Congress got a major boost after being in steady decline in India’s heartland states.
If Tuesday’s results dimmed the halo of “invincibility” that Narendra Modi has worn for so long, it equally helped Rahul Gandhi shed the “Pappu” tag for good and emerge as a leader in his own right, ready to play a pivotal role as part of an Opposition phalanx in the battle ahead.
The significance of the results must be seen in the context of the BJP’s record over the last four-and-a-half years.
Since 2014, the BJP juggernaut — steered by the Modi-Amit Shah duo —had seemed nearly unstoppable as it rampaged through the length and breadth of the country and won state after state.
It stuttered to a halt in some of the ruling party’s bastions on Tuesday with the BJP facing a rout in Chhattisgarh, a decisive defeat in Rajasthan, and a steep decline in Madhya Pradesh.
The outcome is particularly galling for the Modi-Shah duopoly since the BJP was in direct contest with the Congress in all three states. It is thus not just an electoral setback but also an ideological defeat of their avowed goal of establishing a “Congress-mukt” Bharat.
For Rahul, the results are the best first anniversary gift he could have asked for. It was exactly a year ago that he took over as Congress president.
Long dismissed as a reluctant politician with little appetite or acumen for the cut and thrust of a difficult vocation, Rahul has surprised friend and foe alike by displaying a new seriousness and — more important — doggedness in taking on the Prime Minister and the BJP.
As Congress president, he has shown a clarity of purpose that few would have credited him with earlier. In his mission to take on Modi and puncture his larger-than-life image, Rahul single-handedly raised the issue of Rafale wherever he went.
Even while he focused on “bread-and-butter” issues facing the people (unemployment, farmers’ distress, the demonetisation, corruption), he made the Congress much more open to forming alliances with anyone who was willing to come on board to challenge the BJP’s hegemonic politics.
But his biggest achievement, perhaps, was ensuring that the perennially warring factions in the Congress state units came together to fight a united battle this time.
Since 2014, the Congress had won just two Assembly elections on its own, in Punjab and Puducherry. In Punjab, the victory was attributed to Captain Amarinder Singh and the main adversary was the Akali Dal and not the BJP.
Frankly, Mr Narendra Modi has taught me that lesson… because I see what not to do. …The sad thing… is that he refused to listen to the heartbeat of this country
Puducherry is much too small a state to count as a sign of resurgence. In Karnataka, the Congress showed unexpected shrewdness couched in magnanimity by offering the chief minister’s post to the Janata Dal Secular and forming a coalition government even as the BJP was prematurely celebrating its emergence as the biggest party in the state.
But in no state had the Congress frontally taken on the BJP and won. That is why Tuesday’s victory seems more spectacular than the actual numbers warrant.
Barring Chhattisgarh, where the Congress trounced the BJP despite the attempts of the Ajit Jogi-Mayawati alliance to turn it into a three-cornered contest, it barely managed to win Rajasthan and was caught in a see-saw battle with the BJP in Madhya Pradesh till late in the night.
Moreover, the Congress fared very poorly in Telangana and its gamble of joining hands with new ally Telugu Desam Party came a cropper. In Mizoram, it was routed by the regional Mizo National Front.
But more than the actual numbers of seats lost and won, Tuesday’s results present a change in India’s political chemistry at a crucial juncture.
Till very recently, Shah’s boast about establishing single-party rule in the country from “panchayat to Parliament” seemed entirely possible. The BJP had become a successful election-winning machine, and Modi was head and shoulders above any other leader and appeared certain to win a second term with ease.
That sense of certainty has taken a knock. Even before Tuesday’s results, the ground had started to shift. The mess in the Reserve Bank of India and the CBI, the exit of the chief economic adviser, the massive marches mounted by farmers who brought their woes to the country’s financial and political capitals, the growing unrest among Dalits, and the ferment on university campuses despite crackdowns may be unconnected. But taken together, they began giving the impression of a government losing its grip.
Earlier in the year, two major allies — first the TDP and then the PDP — quit the ruling coalition. Two days ago, Bihar ally UpendraKushwaha also left the NDA.
Confident of Modi’s overwhelming popularity and ability to control the narrative, the BJP has dismissed these exits as of little consequence.
In his election rallies, Modi — once adept at suiting his speeches to his audiences’ needs — failed to address the disquiet felt by farmers, small traders and unemployed youths. Sounding more like an Opposition leader than the Prime Minister, he focused his attacks on the Congress’s past sins and the misrule of the “dynasty”.
On the ground, the BJP-RSS workers felt that the strong Hindutva sentiments they had injected into these heartland states over the years would see them through, apart from the development and social welfare measures of the state and central governments.
That the BJP managed to nearly hold on to Madhya Pradesh even after 15 years of incumbency and did not get routed in Rajasthan should temper the Congress’s jubilation.
The results in both states confirm the need for a broad alliance (pre-poll and post-poll) against the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections rather than any attempts to make it a Congress-versus-BJP or Rahul-versus-Modi battle.
Addressing the media after the results, Rahul appeared aware of this imperative. He underlined that even though the Congress had failed to reach an understanding with the BSP or the SP in the Assembly elections, they were “ideologically” on the same side.
He also made it clear that bread-and-butter issues would be the mainstay of the Lok Sabha campaign. The Congress will steer clear of communally polarising issues that the BJP will seek to trap it in.
The BJP is still the most formidable political organisation in the country today, and Modi remains popular, particularly among the entrenched and the aspiring middle classes. And he still has the power to change the narrative. But when a juggernaut gets dented so close to the finishing line, it can find it difficult to regain its earlier speed.
Lotus pond is shrinking
By Shikha Mukerjee
Voters across five states — in the northeast, south, northwest and the saffron heart of India — have shoved the Bharatiya Janata Party into the slough of despond, but the unkindest cut has been reserved for the Congress, which has lost its only northeastern beachhead in Mizoram after 10 years in power.
In all the states, the contests were shaped by voters deciding between bhoomiputras; albeit from the two principal political camps, giving the larger-than-life-sized presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi the grand brush-off. The wins by the Congress, indeed the sweeping change in the contiguous states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, were not crafted by the charisma of Rahul Gandhi; these were won by the hard grind of building party bases and setting up the organisation by local leaders like Sachin Pilot, JyotiradityaScindia, Ashok Gehlot and Kamal Nath, no matter how high profile they are in the entirely different universe of national politics. In Mizoram, the Mizo National Front and an entirely local set of parties, has swung away from the Congress, grudgingly voted in one representative from the BJP and signalled that wisdom lies in choosing leaders with local tap roots.
Miscalculating the power of parochial sentiments, couched in the idiom of Telangana nationalism, has cost the Congress. In selecting the TeleguDesam Party as its running mate, the Congress revealed its complete insensitivity to local feelings, since N. Chandrababu Naidu was vehemently opposed to the creation of Telangana. There is a lesson in this for the Congress, which has changed from being a dark horse to a party on a winning streak, oversetting Narendra Modi-Amit Shah’s designs to reign unopposed and establish an era in Indian politics that would bear their imprimatur. The Congress now needs to discover friends from within the entity that describes itself as the Federal Front to strengthen its challenge against the BJP.
In other words, the known devil on the doorstep is better than the flaming torch-bearing messiah with visions of grandeur that cause hardships to the poor and relatively poor. Parties that represent the region best are winners and make for viable allies in the only way it matters — by winning; against the BJP if that is the challenge or just simply winning the state.
Regional parties that sponsored the idea of the Federal Front will need to rework the strategy for 2019. In Karnataka, the Federal Front emerged as the underwriters for the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) partnership. The optics of the grandstand of regional leaders along with the Congress was signalled by the power of the periphery united to promote a desired outcome.
After these December election results, the regional parties will need to think hard as much about partnering with the Congress, as among themselves and over cornering the BJP. A resurgent Congress raises the spectre of competition and bargains and balancing. In some states, the Congress has poor organisation, weak leadership and low prospects; in others, it could fish for allies that could upset the current political equations. For the Congress, the numbers are crucial to how it will lead the potential coalition against the BJP. The better it is at bargaining, the greater its chances of adding to the numbers, which in turn creates pressure on the dominant anti-BJP party.
The concept of the Federal Front is posited on the idea that it would be anti-BJP and non-Congress. But it would work with the Congress to defeat the BJP. The parties would negotiate with allies and if this meant contesting against the Congress at the state level, then that would be how it worked. Complicated as this may seem, leaders like Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal were emphatic that the potential Federal Front coalition would be an entity in itself. It would negotiate with the Congress on possible government formation after the seats were counted in 2019.
The Congress on the comeback trail, with three significant wins in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, is a more complicated foe and friend for regional parties. The BJP defeated on its home turf is a windfall for parties like the Trinamul Congress and the Biju Janata Dal, as the Sangh posed the noisiest challenge to leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik. It is expected that the losses of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where the appeals of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath failed to keep the voters from pushing out the Raman Singh-Shivraj Singh Chouhan governments will send the SanghParivar scuttling off to Uttar Pradesh to try and salvage as many of the 71 seats out of a total of 80 that it won in 2014.
Even so, the BJP will be a troublesome competitor in a state like West Bengal. Given the social dynamics of the state, the BJP can ratchet up its divisive messaging on the dangers to the Hindu majority from the near 30 per cent Muslim majority. The messaging has resonance in the state because it revives unresolved painful family memories of communal tensions before Partition and the loss of Partition itself. In Assam or even in Tripura, where the BJP has governments in power, the defeat of the party on home ground is likely to weaken its appeal, which is based on the notion that when the same parties are in power at the Centre and in the state, development, meaning the flow of funds, increases, enriching the political elites and injecting some energy into the local economies.
Across the Northeast, where regional parties or alliances prefer to partner with the winner at the Centre, the shrinking lotus pond will initiate a new set of calculations. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee will need to solve her dilemma over the Congress — can she continue to fight the party in the state and join up with it at the Centre on her own terms, which is what the idea of the Federal Front tantalisingly posed, or will she need to be more circumspect in her crude Hindu symbolism of cleansing roads with cow urine and dung?
Congress back into 2019 game
By Ajaz Ashraf
Congress president Rahul Gandhi must feel like an Indian Administrative Service aspirant who clears the preliminary stage of the civil services examination on his last chance. Like the aspirant, Rahul must feel relieved even though there are still two hurdles to cross: The 2019 Lok Sabha election and government formation thereafter. But a poor performance in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan could have just about sealed his fate.
The BJP’s spin doctors will portray the Congress victory as an outcome of anti-incumbency operating in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Since the polity in these three states is bipolar, the Congress, it will be argued, became the recipient of votes of those who were angry and alienated from the Bharatiya Janata Party. In other words, the story of these elections was more about the BJP losing the elections rather than the Congress winning it.
This is as good as saying that the IAS aspirant cleared the preliminary stage of the civil services examinations because the question papers he or she answered were relatively easier than in previous years. It may have been fortuitous for Rahul to have been tested in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, but it cannot be denied that he had been working hard for the past two years without showing good results.
He was humiliated in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, missed upsetting the BJP in Gujarat in December last year, and then, in 2018, went on to lose Karnataka, where he regained a modicum of prestige as the Congress managed to deny power to the BJP. Call it his destiny, but the Congress’ comeback certainly bolsters its hopes in Rahul’s leadership.
The Assembly results of 11 December will dramatically alter the popular perception of Rahul — he will not seem a liability for parties looking to forge an alliance against the BJP. It will enable him and the Congress to bargain better for seats in the emerging Opposition alliance against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP.
At least until the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Rahul will seem a natural choice to lead the anti-BJP formation countrywide.
Give credit to Rahul for exploiting the anti-incumbency sentiment, which often influences electoral outcomes in India. He gave a relatively free hand to regional satraps, united them to a great extent, and exploited the agrarian discontent sweeping large parts of India. He was aggressive in his attacks on Modi. He did not seem diffident as he once was. Rahul has indeed come a long way from the days he appeared disinterested in politics.
Yet the exuberance of his triumphs should not persuade him into believing he can take on Modi alone. He needs regional leaders and their parties to checkmate Modi and the BJP. In fact, the fairly good showing of Independents and outfits with footprints over a few districts shows that people alienated from the BJP tend to vote them wherever they appear stronger than the Congress.
Indeed, the Congress is keen to cobble alliances with regional parties, but its victories on Tuesday could have the party, in its hubris, punch well above its weight.
It will have to restrain itself from making demands in states where it barely counts — for instance, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It will have to accept a role not in consonance with its own perception of being a national party. It will also have to be accommodative of local parties, as for instance in Madhya Pradesh.
The challenges before Rahul Gandhi, therefore, remain double-fold: Not only will he have to increase his party’s tally in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, he has to ensure that regional outfits reduce the number of seats that the BJP had won in 2014. It means the Congress must focus on states whose polity is bipolar — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat — or where it is a senior player in a state-based alliance. In this category are states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala.
Then there are unresolved questions such as: After the debacle in Telangana, will it align with the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh?
The Congress will have to take a hard decision on states like West Bengal, Odisha, and Delhi: Should it accept the supremacy of Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Arvind Kejriwal, postpone its own revival in their states, and hope they will vanquish the BJP? Gandhi seems to have taken a step in that direction by convening the meeting of Opposition leaders in Delhi a day before the Assembly results came pouring in.
Gandhi should also expect the BJP to fling a slew of corruption charges against him and other stalwarts. For one, one of the middleman in the AgustaWestland deal is in the government’s custody. He is expected to sing against the Congress. There are investigations afoot against Rahul’s brother-in-law, Robert Vadra. Even he and his sister, Priyanka, have been accused of conflict in interest through their decision to rent out their farmhouse to a company that was under investigation.
Nobody expects Modi not to recalibrate his strategy following the reversals the BJP has suffered in the three north Indian states. He will seek to address the agrarian distress through populist measures. He will try to win over the alienated youth. A party in power always enjoys the advantage of defining the agenda for an election.
Rahul will have to devise an alternative narrative to that of the BJP. It just might not work for him and the Opposition to harp on Modi and the BJP being a threat to democracy, the Constitution and communitarian living. He should have the BJP imitate him rather than the other way around.