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'An Unwanted Guest' an old-fashioned mystery thriller

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BY MAE WOODS BELL
Book Reviewer

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Written in the style of old-school whodunits from the Golden Age of mystery thrillers with a loose take on an Agatha Christie-like, atmospheric, crime-perpetrated by a unexpected protagonist, author Shari Lapena introduces us to a cast of characters who will have you on tenterhooks sorting out the red herrings and clues in this plot-rich narrative, “An Unwanted Guest” (Viking; $26).

In a fast-paced, entertaining read, guests checking in at Mitchell’s Inn, a cozy retreat deep in the woods in the Catskills, are looking forward to a relaxing, snowy weekend. Each guest has a need; each one brings covert baggage alongside their overnight bags. As they wind their way through curves and unexpected turns in the snowy road, the weekenders look forward to the hospitality promised in the lovely old building. 

Gwen Delaney and Riley Shuter, her passenger, slid through a patch of ice and end up in a ditch. A passing car stops to help them and they find all four of them are headed through the storm to Mitchell’s Inn. “Isn’t that lucky,” Ian says. “You can arrange from the hotel for someone to come to tow your car out.”

Ian Beeton waits near a fireplace for Lauren Day, who signs in and gets the key to their room. He turns to the two women they had rescued, helps them with their bags. “Did you notice anything odd about that woman Riley?” asks Lauren. “Don’t think about her,” Ian says, given her a quick kiss. “Think about me.”

Attorney David Paley parks his car in the shoveled area by the side of the Inn. His drive from New York took longer than expected and now his muscles are stiff — a reminder that he’s not young anymore. Before picking up his overnight bag from the backseat of his Mercedes, he stands for a moment in the thickening snow, looking at the three-story brick structure with gingerbread trim. It feels quiet, peaceful, and he begins to relax.

Beverly Sullivan drops her overnight bag and looks at the room. It’s perfect, just like the brochure. There is an old-fashioned luxury here that she isn’t accustomed to. She’s wondering what’s taking her husband Henry so long to come upstairs.

Dana Hart stamps the snow off her boots and looks approvingly at the grand staircase and the large stone fireplace. The smell of the wood fire reminds her of days spent at Matthew’s family cottage. Everything is perfect including this lovely hotel that Matthew chose for their pre-marriage tryst. Matthew notices that there’s no elevator. It’s a small hotel. He wants someplace quiet. He wishes they could elope, but the heir to a large New England fortune does not elope.

Candace White sits at the antique writing desk in front of the window and looks at the wintry landscape. She had arrived early and has been able to put in a good day of work. If this book is as good as she thinks it’s going to be — as good as her agent says it is --then she wil all have to adjust their thinking.

The snowstorm morphs into a blizzard so violent that that power is cuts , the roads become impassible; the inn has no phone service or backup equipment. Luckily there is plenty of firewood, oil for lamps, food and a well-stocked wine cellar. There is nothing to do except wait out the storm

Then, sometime in the night, Dana falls to her death. Is it an accident? David Paley, a forensic lawyer, is sure it is murder. No one has an alibi and panic takes over. As the storm rages on, there are other deaths — are they accidents or is murder afoot again? Suspicions and accusations lead to back stories and unpleasant secrets. At last the series murderer’s motive is explained fully, and the narrative ends with an added twist to the tale.

Shari Lapena worked as a lawyer and as an English teacher before turning to writing fiction. “A Stranger in the House” as well as Lapena’s suspense debut, “The Couple Next Door,” were both New York Times and international bestsellers.

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An Excerpt

Sergeant Sorensen pushes the snowmobile hard over the ice-covered snow up the long, winding drive to Mitchell’s Inn. She had gunned it as fast as she can all the way from town.

A triple homicide. Things like this are rare up here. They don’t even have a detective at the station. She will have to do until New York State Police can send someone. Officer Laclan had briefed her more fully when she arrived at the station, but the facts are sketchy. Three guests and the owner’s son are dead, and another guest is missing. She is shocked. She doesn’t know what they might be walking into. She’s familiar with the hotel, and with the family. Young Bradley — dead. She can hardly believe it. Her adrenaline is pumping fiercely as they approach the final curve in the long drive.

Sorensen notices a smear of blood on the ice near the front porch, and silently points it out. She creeps up the side steps and looks in the window. Finally, she pulls open the front door, her weapon ready. It opens easily. She steps inside the lobby and her eyes automatically turn toward the group around the fireplace. She sees pale faces peering out from blankets, staring back at her.

She hears the three officers coming in behind her. She takes in everything with her quick eyes. The people sitting around the fire look haggard and disheveled, as if they haven’t slept. As if they’ve survived some kind of siege. She recognizes James, blindsided by the loss of his only son. She feels a stab of pity for him. She count eight survivors sitting around the fire. No, make that seven. On closer inspection, one of the chairs is holding a corpse.

She approaches the small gathering, holstering her weapon. “I’m Sergeant Sorensen, and these are” — she indicates each with a nod of her head — “Officers Lachlan, Perez, and Wilcox. We’re here now, and we’re going to help you.” She tries to sound authoritative and reassuring at the same time. Sorensen steps forward to look more closely at the dead man. She can’t tell from looking at him whether he was murdered or died of natural causes.

She takes in the pallid faces looking up at her and wishes fervently that the medical examiner and the forensic team were here with her. She has no idea how long it will be until the roads are passable. She’s on her own here.

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