"An Unwanted Guest" by Shari LaPena
When I was in high school, I quickly bonded with a classmate, Jennie — largely because we regularly sequestered ourselves in my bedroom with Star Crunch cookies, Doritos 3Ds, and bad mix tapes.
Though we don’t talk much now, one thing I distinctly remember about this dear friend is that she used to refuse to park in parking garages. When I asked her why, she said it was because you’re likelihood of being raped and/or murdered in a parking garage was, like, 500x higher than in a parking lot — a statistic that she undoubtedly picked up at www.StatisticsThatAreConvenientForJennie.com.
But, despite the fact that I thought her particular aversion was a bit odd, I must admit that I feel about hotels the way she felt about parking garages.
Hotels are inherently creepy.
I’m not sure why I feel that way, exactly.
Maybe it’s the number of urban legends that are set in hotels.
Or the sheer quantity of people that typically temporarily cohabitate in a modern hotel.
Or the reality of showering in a bathroom that isn’t your own.
Whatever the reason for my feelings about hotels, the fact that this thriller was set in one had me on edge even before I’d finished page 1. Compounding the seriousness and certainty of my rapidly building fear was the fact that the hotel in which LaPena set this novel wasn’t your run-of-the-mill Holiday Inn Express, but, instead, a secluded B&B — the most parking-garagiest of hotels, IMO.
As the book opens, readers find a large cast of characters making the rather ill-advised, winter-time trip up treacherous roads to a quaint little B&B that is nestled in the Catskills.
Though they all have embarked on this journey for different reasons, each hopes to enjoy a comfortable and relaxing weekend away.
Among the visitors are:
Gwen and Riley, two friends seeking an escape.
Lauren and Ian, a couple who recently started dating.
Dana and Mathew, a couple who recently became engaged.
Beverly and Henry, a married could who recently — or maybe not so recently — fell out of love.
David, a lawyer who was previously accused of murdering his wife — See. This is why I don’t fucking like hotels. You could be living under the same roof as a maybe-wife-murderer #SMH.
And Candice, a writer who is seeking quiet — and definitely not hoping to inadvertently check in to a hotel where people end up dead. Which, really, should go without saying. “People End up Dead Here” is never a Yelp* review title you want to see when seeking accommodations.
On top of these guests, you have the hotel owner, James, and his workhorse — er… son — Bradley.
Large cast of characters. I know. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.
Shortly after the Friday night arrival of these guests, a winter storm kicks up and makes the roads to and from the hotel entirely impassable.
At this point in time, I was thinking, “Oh fuck. “The Shining”. If some creepy ass dead twins show up in this motherfucker, I’m out!”
Fortunately for me, no creepy ass dead twins showed up.
Unfortunately for the characters, the type of bad stuff you would expect to happen at a snowed-in B&B did start to happen.
Despite all seeming well on the night of their arrival, the next morning the guests find one of their own — newly engaged Dana — dead at the foot of the stairs.
Maybe it was an accident, they logically think.
They all imbibed quite a bit at cocktail hour. Trip-and-falls happen.
I trip and fall sober all the time. I can attest to this, personally.
But despite the possibility that it was an accident, there was enough of a possibility that it wasn’t to put the guests on edge.
Unable to get help or even call — thanks to the fact that the snowstorm took the phones out #WellIsntThatFuckingConvenient — the remaining guests and hotel proprietors try to make the most of the situation, relaxing and enjoying… as much as they can… their weather-induced confinement.
As anyone who has ever read a mystery… or a thriller… or just has any common sense at all… could predict, this first death ends up not being the last.
And, when a second guest is found dead, the question of whether or not Dana’s death was accidental dies, too.
With the sun rapidly setting, the terrified guests hope that they all live to see the light of the next day.
As I already hinted at, when I started reading this book, one of the things I worried would be an issue was the quantity of characters.
In fairness, LaPena is in good company when it comes to penning prose with a potentially overwhelmingly large cast. This book was very Agatha-Christie-esque, and the size of the cast of characters is one thing that made it such.
And, initially, I did find the sheer quantity of characters to be… overwhelming. At first I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep them all straight and, for a little bit at least, I had to apply concerted effort to doing so. However, LaPena was successful in differentiating the characters sufficiently to allow me to easily keep them distinguished within my mind, making this novel not overly taxing to read.
For me, the real issue ended up being questionable plausibility of some of the decisions and actions of the characters.
For example, their complete-fucking-inability-and-or-unwillingness not to continue to step right the fuck over Dana’s body.
Let me explain. So David, the attorney — and, also, obviously the only one who watches 48-hours with any regularity — wisely decides that they shouldn't move the body — Which, as previously established, was left lying, quite inconveniently, at the foot of the stairs.
Okay. Sure. He's right.
But, then, because the body is laying at the foot of the stairs, and the back staircase is "creepy", our guests stumble around it as they go up and down for almost the whole course of the novel.
So, let me get this straight. There is reason to believe that this bitch was murdered and didn’t just fall and you think that whatever evidence might exist to prove that this was, in fact, a murder, won't be disturbed by people continually stepping over the body?
Like, I get avoiding creepy staircases. I, too, have seen some horror films. But, in this case, I think maybe make an exception.
These concerns notwithstanding, LaPena was, largely, successful in doing what I assume she set out to do. She created an atmospheric novel that was less a thriller and more a pure, old-fashion, and honestly quite enjoyable mystery.
Her characters were well-established and varied enough to be distinguishable.
Her pacing was sufficiently slow as to allow for the building of suspense but sufficiently fast as to ensure you didn’t tire of the novel.
The only point I’m left pondering, even weeks after finishing this novel, is whether I found the answer to the driving questions — whodunit — to be satisfying. Making answering this question with a simple yes or no next to impossible is the fact that, as in LaPena’s debut, The Couple Next Door, this novel almost has two endings.
In ending one, we find out who committed these murders.
And in ending two we find out that what we found out in ending one wasn’t the whole truth.
When I break it down, I think I can safely say that I found ending one to be… well… meh.
But ending two — oh, good old ending two — ending two did provide the satisfaction — and, really, the twist — that I was seeking.
With the trees shedding their leaves and summer’s heat giving way to suddenly-bone-chilling autumn temperatures, the ideal season for this book is fast approaching.
Fans of thrillers — and, particularly, old school Agatha Christie lovers — will find much to love in this Shari LePena novel.
It earns 4 out of 5 cocktails.
Maybe… a warm cocktail with this one, because it will chill you to the bone.
Hot Toddy anyone?
I love books in which people are snowbound — even though I suspect very much that I would most decidedly not enjoy being snowbound myself. What snowbound books have you read? Tell me about them in the comments, below, so I can add them to my list.