Oh, the pure joy of a locked-room murder mystery. Sealed chamber; isolated island; cut-off castle; drifting spaceship with all comms down… all have the same three basic ingredients – a group of innocents (mostly); complete disconnection from the outside world; and a killer in their midst.
Growing fear in their eyes. And blood. More and more blood, everywhere…
Agatha Christie cornered the market in this kind of thriller-killer fiction but anyone can try their hand at it. And that’s what Shari Lapena has done – with terrific effect. I loved A Stranger in the House from the very first chapter. We’ll come to the characters shortly, but the setting is wonderfully atmospheric, almost a character in its own right.
The Catskill Mountains in upstate New York have always held a personal fascination for me and they’re on my bucket list to visit. The Catskills are where Rip Van Winkle lived and hid away. Ancient legends about the range hover in the consciousness of modern America to this day. They’re meant to be haunted (what mountains aren’t?) and superstitious settlers once believed that the sound of distant thunder was the rumble of giants playing bowls somewhere among the distant peaks.
The Catskills may be barely a day’s drive from modern Manhattan, but their mysterious, remote fastness survives into the 21st century. Especially in the winter. Especially during an ice-storm. Especially when rich, pampered guests arrive at an old-fashioned luxury hotel that proudly boasts of having no Wi-Fi, no mobile phone signal, no gas-guzzling, noisy snowmobiles.
When you’re snowbound at beautiful, remote Mitchell’s Inn, you’re not just cut off.
When things start to go wrong, you’re helpless.
It should have been a relaxing weekend deep in the mountain forest. But even as the dozen or so guests arrive, everything’s starting to fall apart. A clear sunny day has deteriorated into the worst snowstorm for decades. One visitor’s car skids off the slippery road miles from Mitchell’s Inn and its occupants have to be rescued by another passing guest with better tyres.
Everyone makes it there in one piece, somehow. But even as they check into their delightfully old-fashioned but well-appointed rooms, it’s obvious that getting out again is not an option, not for days.
Which presents some problems.
Even before the killing starts.
Beverly and Henry’s marriage is on its last legs. She wants to give it another shot; he just wants out. He fantasizes about his freedom while she secretly unpacks a sexy negligee for their make-or-break weekend in the mountains.
Dana and Matthew are engaged. She is the most beautiful young woman on the east coast; he – heir to a family fortune – is one of the richest men. They’re deeply in love (and in lust) but that doesn’t stop them arguing fiercely in their room after dinner on the first night.
Dana will be the first to die. When her body is found on the morning of the second day, Mitchell’s Inn has been plunged into a power cut and the phone lines are down. Impossible to call the police. Impossible to leave the hotel.
And impossible to escape the killer in their midst.