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An Unwanted Guest / Shari Lapena

Pamela Dorman Books / August 2018
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Any mystery writer who takes on the locked-room mystery formula of Agatha Christie rolls the dice. Sometimes, the roll gives them a winner—oftentimes not. So when Shari Lapena—fresh off the success of two well-received breakout novels, The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the House—takes on an obvious homage to Christie’s classic And Then There Were None, you find yourself holding your breath as the dice roll down the table.

Her classic set-up is as comforting as it is familiar—ten guests arrive at a quaint (and quite isolated) mountain lodge in the Catskills where a crippling weather event (here a blizzard and ice storm) cuts them off from the outside world. Someone dies in what first appears to be an accident. Then someone else dies in what is decidedly not an accident and the stranded guests—tended to by a father-son team of innkeepers—realize that a murderer walks among them. Misplaced suspicions and character reveals stoke the fires of paranoia. The bodies continue to pile up until the power is restored and the local law enforcement can be called in just in time for the drawing room denouement.

Lapena—like myriad writers before her—proves that a dozen cooks can use the same ingredients and follow the same recipe but still end up with twelve slightly different dishes. While she ably sets the scene in An Unwanted Guest, her execution veers off somewhere in the second act, all but derailing the third. Her ensemble of weekend guests are distinguishable enough from one another, but none of them truly stands out. This makes the key hook for readers—a character with whom they sympathize and can root for—lacking here. With no one to cheer on, readers may find themselves bumbling around as aimlessly as her characters do once the requisite power fail kills the lights.

With An Unwanted Guest, it almost seems like Lapena wanted to write a serious locked-room mystery but then changed her mind midway through and decided she should go the thriller route. As such, her pacing is on-point, with shorter passages told from various characters’ points of view lending momentum and allowing her to slow things down or quicken the pace when she needs to. She ably layers in a red herring or two that momentarily diverts the reader’s attention, but ultimately she misses the mystery mark by failing to make it possible for readers to solve the mystery themselves. The third-act reveal seems rushed, with motive and backstory dumped out unceremoniously and as fast as the killer is handcuffed. One assumes this is to make way for the big twist—something of a “must” now in psychological thrillers and quickly becoming a trope in and of itself—but even that the reader will see coming from a mile away.

An Unwanted Guest is like a beautifully formatted essay that, ultimately, makes no point. Taken strictly as an homage to Christie’s classics, it works better—but even then only slightly because of its mediocre third act. You’ll find yourself happy you made it for the party but ultimately disappointed that you didn’t get out before the roads got too bad to leave.

Purchase An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena.

Posted on Wednesday, January 30, 2019 at 02:14PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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