Arts & Books Books

An Agatha Christie for the stag party era?

Lucy Foley

Mark Lawson reviews this month’s best crime fiction

The newest must-read British crime novel has to overcome the obstacle of starting from one of the genre’s most-read premises. In a remote and snow-bound location, one of a group of 11 guests celebrating the new year at a hotel is murdered. The killer must logically be one of the other 10 revellers, or one of the pair of staff at Loch Corrin, a luxury Highlands hunting lodge.

However, these two vintage Agatha Christie elements – “Nobody will be able to come and go for days!”, and, “It could be any one of us!” – are freshly deployed by Lucy Foley in her debut, The Hunting Party (HarperCollins, £12.99), with intelligent attention to such issues as how isolation might be achieved, and pasts hidden, in a time of digital connectivity.

Another brightly polished borrowing from the classic closed community mystery novel is the quantity of unsaid feelings and unspeakable memories among the cooped-up. A party of posh London thirtysomethings, up with their guns for a kind of post-marital stag party at Hogmanay, are marked by shifting alliances, and known and covert dalliances, developed through the many years since they met through university or work. The two other hotel guests and the Lodge employees are equally unlikely to be what they seem.

A minor irritation is that Foley’s use of localised character viewpoint, rather than authorial narration or the perspective of the investigating detective, means that people are sometimes required to be more oblique and secretive about the past than is likely in the quiet of a mind or conscience. A guilt-stricken man remembers when “he did the thing”; a woman in conversation is “half tempted to tell him what I used to do, who I am”; a third resident reflects on the time “before things fell apart”.

Private self-interrogation is sometimes evasive, but, here, the motive is not psychological denial, but the need to withhold giveaway details from the reader. In what seems set to be a strong career, Foley might usefully work on the balance between misleading narrative and human realism. The knack of ridiculously gripping narrative, however, she already has. The Hunting Party should be one of 2019’s big holiday reads.

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Long-submerged tensions among friends holding the explanation for a buried corpse also seed The Wych Elm (Penguin Viking, £14.99) by Tana French, whose Irish-inflected books have made her the leader of the younger generation of crime writers in the UK and US.

With this book, though, the writer sets her fan base two challenges. The Wych Elm riskily suspends the sequence of Dublin Murder Squad stories that formed French’s first six novels. And the author’s preferred avoidance of conventional crime story forms – her earlier books intricately revisited a group of Irish detectives in major and minor roles across subsequent investigations – leads her here to start with a slow, methodical description of a patient in a neurological hospital, which, though running to 90 pages, is essentially a prologue to the main action.

Slowly recovering from life-threatening head injuries after an attack, Toby Hennessy goes to recuperate at the Ivy House, a family mansion where he spent many childhood holidays, and where Toby’s Uncle Hugo is currently dying. The discovery of a long-dead human skull inside the titular tree raises questions, in what feels like a deliberate homage to Barbara Vine’s classic A Fatal Inversion (1987), of what, in the family’s past, has been got away with, and by whom.

The fact that Toby’s own mysteriously damaged skull becomes filled with thoughts of what happened to another set of head bones is typical of French’s clever patterning, encouraging us to speculate about how the unexplained attack on the narrator might be connected to the death on his ancestral estate. Equally characteristic of the writer’s rich plot-stews is the presence in Uncle Hugo of a potential victim or suspect whose availability to the investigation is medically time-limited.

With The Wych Elm channeling Vine (a pseudonym of Ruth Rendell) and The Hunting Party rebooting Christie – following last year’s hot crime novel, AJ Finn’s The Woman in the Window, which modernised a famous Hitchcock plot – there’s an intriguing trend of younger crime writers respecting generic inheritance.

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Contrastingly setting out to be provocatively original in subject matter and structure, Kill [Redacted] by Anthony Good (Atlantic Books, £14.99) is unusual, for a book, in turning on a word that isn’t there. Blacked out on the cover and throughout the text is the surname of a politician whom Michael blames for starting a war that led to a revenge terrorist attack on London, in which Michael’s wife died. In monologues to us, and to his therapist, the protagonist outlines his aim to take the life of the unnamed leader, setting up an ethics seminar in the form of a thriller.

The nominal censorship creates a double frisson. We suspect that the former politician’s name (a real one seems neatly to fit the gaps on the pages) was in the original manuscript, before being removed on legal grounds, as if it might constitute an incitement to violence. However, the resulting lack of specificity invites readers to
speculate more widely about the guilt and complicity of politicians, and the permissibility of violent response.

A less happy publishing decision is to have neither page numbers nor chapter headings across a volume of around 400 pages. This makes it almost impossible to relocate a lost place in the narrative. Perhaps the publishers are gambling that, once readers start, they will not want to stop, and Good’s tight control of tension and revelation makes this likely to be the case.