Shari Lapena's latest mystery thriller An Unwanted Guest was a perfect read for me. Locked room set-up in an isolated, atmospheric hotel, snowed-in, cast of characters with secrets to hide, lights out, and no way to call for help, with no cell-phone service. A murderer or a reader couldn't ask for more. With a tip of the hat to Agatha Christie for the gathering of suspects all under one inescapable roof and another tip to Stephen King's the Shining for a snow and ice storm that shuts everything down. It's test of nerves and survival, with an hysterical edge.
The Catskills in the winter can be a both a great place for a getaway and a dangerous place to navigate in bad weather. Mitchell's Inn is a secluded hotel with luxury accommodations, fireplaces in the large rooms, a lobby with a roaring fire, a library, meals that promise to be first rate, and plenty of outdoor activities in the snow. The group of guests that arrive before a snow storm makes the roads impassable are there for a relaxing, private time, so the snow at first seems cozy. There are couples and singles, and they all have their own reasons for wanting to get away from their daily routines. One couple is engaged and needing some down time before wedding plans kick into high gear. Another couple is suffering from a tired marriage, and the wife booked a weekend to try and resuscitate it. The third couple has found themselves getting closer and look forward to time alone. Two friends are there, one friend trying to help her friend who is suffering from PTSD find some peace. A lawyer is hoping to put New York City and his cases behind him for a few days. And, a writer has planned a solitary working weekend to finish her break-through book.
The blizzard turns into an ice storm, and the only staff that are on site are the owner, who is also the chef, and his son, who does a bit of everything, mainly taking care of the guests and seeing that they have whatever they need or want. It's all manageable and initially pleasant until the ice storm causes the electricity to go out and results in treacherous conditions beyond the door of the hotel. The fireplaces help some with the warmth, but the weekend quickly becomes chilly, and then chilling when one of the women is discovered at the bottom of the grand staircase dead. It could be an accident, but when another death occurs that is clearly not an accident, fear and suspicion grab hold of the remaining guests. There are some disturbing secrets harbored by these guests, and some of them start seeping out as attempts are made to unmask the evil amongst them. Or, could it be an outsider who is somehow gaining access to the hotel? Who will survive until the police can be called? Anyone?
With twelve characters front and center, Shari Lapena does a superb job of keeping the reader on track with all of them. I didn't get confused who was who or who they were with or why they were there. That takes some skillful writing. The suspense is as thick as the snow and ice that sealed the guests inside the hotel. I felt the darkness of unlit corners and halls, and I cringed with concern when a guest was willfully not careful. It was a great scare fest with enough atmosphere to please the most demanding reader. I flew through the pages, because who doesn't want to see who survives and who is guilty. I was surprised, and that's just the way I like it.