Death in the Catskills

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

AN UNWANTED GUEST. By Shari Lapena. Penguin Audio. Read by Hillary Huber. 8 ½ hours; 7 CDs. $35. Also available in print from Pamela Dorman Books.

This latest suspense novel by best-selling author Shari Lapena is set in a remote, small hotel in the Catskills in winter. Various reasons bring the diverse group of guests to the hotel – there are young couples hoping for a romantic weekend, a middle-age couple whose marriage is in need of rejuvenation, an author trying to finish a book, a lawyer in need of a break, a couple of young women hoping for a therapeutic girls retreat.

But even as they are arriving to check in, a winter storm is beginning to rage.

By morning, the guests and the father-son team who run the hotel are cut off from the world, a dangerous layer of ice making the deep snow even more treacherous. Worse, they find themselves without power or telephones and with only the fireplaces for heat.

Much worse, they awake on Saturday morning to discover that one of their number is dead. At first, they think her death might be an accident, but another guest with some expert knowledge insists that foul play is likely.

And then the body count starts to mount.

Lapena lets us see the tension mounting through the eyes of the various guests and the hotel owners as the clock slowly ticks through Saturday, a terrifying night and into Sunday morning.

Who is killing people, one by one? Is it one of the people in the hotel, or is an outsider lurking? What could the motive – motives – be, and are the deaths connected?

As fear raises the danger level, we learn more about the people. Nearly everyone, it seems, has some sort of unpleasant secret.

When I reviewed Lapena’s second book, A Stranger in the House, last year, I complained that there was no one to like or care about among the characters, and that the plot was somewhat predictable and contrived.

This time out, there are a few characters who did engage my sympathy, although one of the things Lapena does well is make us doubt – just as the people in the hotel do – even the ones we’re inclined to like.

The plot, again, is a bit too convenient. Would a pricey mountain resort hotel offering a well stocked bar and wine cellar, outdoor sporting opportunities, an outdoor bar constructed of ice and other amenities really not have a generator or any sort of internet?

All in all, though, I thought Lapena did a better job this time out, and the audio version kept me guessing – and caring – enough to want to know what happened next.

The ending was worth it, mostly credible and topped off with an extra twist.

Coincidentally, this is the second book I’ve read in the last month with a plot inspired by Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None. The other was the latest World War II-era Maggie Hope mystery by Susan Elia Macneal.

Imitation, we are told, is the sincerest form of flattery, but the imitators pale by comparison to Dame Agatha.

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