The characters of An Unwanted Guest all live under the cloud of suspicion.
As they arrive at a cozy inn with a snowstorm rolling in, couples and individuals ready themselves for some relaxation. But then, a big storm shuts them in and keeps everyone else out. Roads are closed and phones are down. It sets the perfect scene for murrrrrderrr (imagine me saying that with oogly fingers and an evil voice).
And murder is what they get. One by one, they meet their maker. By the time the roads open and the police are able to come in, at least half of them are dead.
I’ve bemoaned Shari Lapena before. I read and enjoyed The Couple Next Door quite a bit, especially the noirish feel. But then, I read this article that gave me additional perspective.
And then there’s A Stranger in the House. The book nearly enraged me. It follows the same formula set up in The Couple Next Door.
Both books feature a young, enviable couple whose relationship comes into question. The seemingly strong husband is easily manipulated. Female neighbors are menacingly meddlesome. Cops are noble and intelligent and think of nothing more than getting to the bottom of the case. Twists abound. It’s as if she took the same characters and basic plot structure as The Couple Next Door and put them in A Stranger in the House, a book that I internally dubbed The OTHER Couple Next Door.
Lapena follows a formula here, too, albeit a much more beloved one: the locked-room mystery. This is a construct in which people are in a proverbial or literal locked room, making it impossible for anyone to get in to commit murder, nor be able to escape.
It’s something you’ll see heavily-used by Agatha Christie. In fact, An Unwanted Guest pretty closely follows the structure of Christie’s And Then There Were None.
The place where An Unwanted Guest loses steam is the investigation.
Once the police get in, the book becomes sort of a rote, slow-moving procedural. Even worse, we don’t even have the pleasure of the eccentric, captivating investigator like Hercule Poirot to make the hunt as thrilling as the mystery.
Lapena has found success with formulas. Sometimes following a formula in a new and exciting way can be exhilarating. Lapena just needs to be careful to make sure she doesn’t fall into the trap of falling into a drab, too-worn path. She’s doing well, obviously. She should push herself to do even better.
An Unwanted Guest
Published August 2018
Pamela Dorman Books