Audiobook Review: An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Suspense
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Penguin Audio (August 7, 2018)
Length: 8 hrs and 27 mins
Narrator: Hillary Huber
An Unwanted Guest was another “road trip audiobook”, one I picked out based on the presumption that an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery would keep the adults in the car entertained for a 10-hour long drive. It would seem that I chose well, for this turned out to be a very engaging listen.
The story takes place in the Catskill Mountains, during a bad winter snowstorm. As the characters start arriving at Mitchell’s Inn, a remote resort lodge nestled in the woods, they find themselves snowed in and cut off from the outside world. There is also no cellular service or internet connection at the hotel, which prides itself on being a stress-free getaway where their guests can unplug. In the end though, it all becomes moot as the storm knocks out electricity completely, leaving everyone in the literal dark. Fortunately, the inn is well-stocked with plenty of food, booze, and firewood so that the guests can stay in relative comfort while they wait for the roads to clear and powerlines to be fixed.
But on the morning after the first night, our characters wake up to a grisly sight. One of them is dead, and though it appears to be a tragic accident, some of them aren’t too sure and suspect that foul play may be involved. All doubt is soon erased, however, as a second dead body turns up, this one clearly murdered. Panic ensues as those remaining start pointing fingers at their fellow lodgers, while a few also start investigating the possibility of an unwanted guest—a mysterious stranger who might have broken into the hotel during the thick of the storm unbeknownst to any of them.
This book first begins with an introduction to the characters, and like all stories of this nature, it involves a fairly sizeable cast. Listening to the audiobook, it was slightly more challenging to get the names sorted in my mind, but author Shari Lapena managed to give her characters enough distinguishing traits to make remembering them all relatively easy. Most of them are traveling in pairs—a young girlfriend-boyfriend couple who are newly in love and are looking forward to a naughty weekend; the heir of a prominent and wealthy New England family and his beautiful fiancée who are spending some time alone together before their lavish wedding; a husband and wife in their 40s who are having some marital problems, hoping that a vacation in the Catskills away from work and kids will help sort them out; and finally, a pair of best friends who met while in journalism school, trying to rebuild their broken friendship after they went their separate ways. Then there are singletons, including a distinguished New York City lawyer who has decided to lay low by escaping to the mountains, as well as a reclusive writer who has chosen Mitchell’s Inn as the perfect quiet place to work on her new book. Rounding out this cast is the hotel’s owner and his son, both overworked trying to keep their guests warm and fed during their disastrous snowbound weekend.
What initially attracted me to this tale was the way its premise reminded me of the classic detective mysteries of the Golden Age, where the settings are very often secluded old country houses and the characters are very much your larger-than-life, upper crust clichés. An Unwanted Guest is like a modern and updated approach to this kind of murder mystery, checking off a lot of the genre’s rules while also employing many devices of its own. At its heart, it is a plot-driven story in which the reader is given the opportunity to figure out who the killer is along with the characters, picking up clues and other details along the way. Like any good whodunit, this one also contains plenty of red herrings and other misdirection tactics in an attempt to throw you off-track.
But going against convention, this story isn’t told from the point-of-view of a singular detective-type character. Instead, the author has opted for third-person omniscient narration, which makes for some fickle and untrustworthy perspectives, since Lapena had to keep the secret of the murderer going for as long as possible. This means that you’ll find yourself in the head or heads of the person/people you later find out are responsible, though at the time we are given no hints that they know anything at all about the murders, when realistically the killings should have been foremost on their minds. In this day and age of advanced technology, the story also went to great lengths keeping the setting secluded and our characters cut off from civilization. To me, it’s a little unrealistic that an upscale hotel would have no emergency backup plan, such as a generator or snowmobiles to send for help in these kinds of situations. The explanation given for the lack of these provisions is that they’d be “noisy”, but come on, when you run a boutique resort that caters to a mostly affluent clientele in the mountains where you know you routinely get bad winters, that’s a pretty flimsy excuse.
These quibbles aside though, I thought An Unwanted Guest was a fantastically good read (or good listen, in my case). The story did its job, which is to provide some much-needed entertainment over the course of a boring long drive. Not only did it succeed, the book also met all my lofty expectations a compelling murder mystery, delivering plenty of drama, thrills and kills. Narrator Hillary Huber also did a fantastic job, and I would recommend this audiobook if you’re looking for a modern whodunit with a classic feel.