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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
Bantam, UK
ISBN: 978-0593079652