Even though there are signs that COVID-19 cases might be lessening, many of us are still “sheltering in place.” That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t go visiting. You can drop in on fictional characters trapped in isolated houses in remote places like I did when I read Lucy Foley’s latest crime novel “The Guest List” (William Morrow). Her books are often compared to Agatha Christie’s locked room mysteries, like “And Then There Were None” and “Murder on the Orient Express,” and in which suspects are trapped at the scene of the crime. Foley’s atmospheric book is no exception, and it’s one of those reads that’s hard to put down. A follow-up to her bestseller “The Hunting Party,” Foley delivers a mystery that is moving, thrilling, entertaining and, ultimately, really satisfying.
The story is set on Inis Amplóir, a fictional rocky island off of Ireland’s Connemara west coast. Family and friends have gathered for the wedding of trendy Londoners Julia “Jules” Keegan and Will Slater. Jules is narcissistic and beautiful, the competent editor of an online fashion magazine, and Will is the hot, charming host of a popular reality TV show called “Survive the Night,” which places him totally alone in dangerous situations after dark, and he must use his wits and survival skills to return to safety (think “Naked and Afraid” with clothes but without coupling). Will and Jules look perfect together, but they hardly know each other, which really doesn’t bode well for the start of a marriage.
In a nod to her Irish roots (and, presumably, the author’s own), Jules has decided to hold the destination wedding on the wildly beautiful but spooky old place in an abandoned mansion called Folly. The house has had new life breathed into it by Aoife, a judgmental, tightly wound wedding planner from Dublin who has converted it into a boutique venue. Freddie, Aoife’s English husband, is the chef.
A storm brews up the evening before the wedding, and continues on throughout the big day. When someone turns up dead, the panicked cast of characters is stranded physically due to the fact that the mainland can only be reached by boat. There is no way out, and because this is a mystery, they are also trapped psychologically. Festering tensions become heightened, stress levels escalate and old ghosts find their way to the surface of disparate minds. There are times actual ghosts appear to be harassing several of the guests, especially those rich and powerful English pals of the couple. Many are Will’s former schoolmates from the posh Trevelyan boarding school and they are revealed to be a pack of immature, sadistic bullies who add a creepy “Lord of the Flies” feeling to the plot.
The story grows through the modern crime-fiction technique of multiple first-person narrators, who provide conflicting perspectives on events as they unfold. Slowly it becomes obvious that almost everyone in attendance is capable of becoming a revenge killer. These are: Jules; her disturbed teenage sister, Olivia; Johnno, Will’s unstable best man; Hannah, the sensible wife of Charlie, Jules’ best friend; and, towards the end, Will himself. Each is harboring some dark secret or memory. Jules remembers her cold-hearted mother and absent father; Olivia recalls a sizzling affair that ended badly, and maybe violently; Hannah still feels tormented over something that happened to her sister years before; Charlie experienced a mysterious trauma on Will’s stag night; Johnno hated his schooldays but also longs for them. Even the highly professional Aoife may be dealing with pain from her past.
The book begins with the raucous, drunken, drug-filled evening of the wedding, when the lights go out in the party tent some 50 boggy yards from Folly. A waitress rushes in, screaming about seeing a body soaked in blood. The author then moves back and forth between the present – as some Old Trevelyans hazard out into the storm to investigate – and the past two days, leading up to this death.
Is there a body out there or are the elements playing tricks on everyone’s minds? Rather cleverly, the book doesn’t confirm this, or expose the identity of the victim, until later on, so as well as a whodunnit, the book is also a “who had it done to them?”
If you like a clever, well written mystery, read “The Guest List.” And pay close attention to some throwaway details – no matter how minute – about the characters’ pasts. They are all clues. When the murder finally takes place and when the identity of the victim is disclosed, it all comes together and makes sense. The only question left at the end is: Shouldn’t someone have done it sooner?