Can we all come to some sort of agreement, please? That we stop comparing contemporary crime thrillers to Agatha Christie? I know that she still has a reputation as a cosy crime writer but Christie is the type of writer that very few can live up to. She has a deep understanding of human behaviour and knows how to mislead her readers convincingly. I blame her writing for the fact that I so often guess book twists. She, and to some extent Arthur Conan Doyle, has trained me to start thinking too critically about everything I read. I’m always disappointed by modern crime books. Especially those super hyped ones that everyone loves. Like The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley. I’ve heard so many people praising it but I was not blown away. I’d guessed who the victim was from the start and it was super obvious who had killed them. So, I hadn’t intended to read her follow-up The Guest List. Until the ebook was on offer. It might not be a great read but at least it would dull the boredom for a while.
Have you ever watched How to Get Away With Murder? It’s a television show that really uses the time jump trope to great effect. Throughout the series, at the end of an episode, the show will jump forward several weeks to tease the big event that the narrative is slowly moving us towards. It gives the audience a brief glimpse of what’s to come without ever giving anything away. Yet, you’re left thinking that you’re slowly getting enough pieces of the puzzle to begin figuring it out for yourself. It’s a trope that Lucy is clearly a big fan of. In the two books of hers that I’ve read, she has used this idea within the story but, unlike HTGAWM, she uses it badly. Although it’s not entirely her fault. It’s just not a trope that is suited for novels.
The idea of time jump teasers works in television because of the episodic nature of a television show. Yes, people might be changing the way they consume media these days but shows are still being created for weekly viewings. This means tiny cliffhangers at the end of each episode won’t destroy the narrative flow and keeps viewers invested in the story. Unless Lucy Foley had intended to publish her books serially in the Charles Dickens fashion, the only thing her narrative skips do is slow the pace of the book. It doesn’t even add tension because you see through it after the first one. It’s merely a way for writers to manufacture tension when they can’t do so organically. It’s a cheap technique and is a bad writing choice.
In her latest novel, The Guest List, Lisa Foley tries to evoke feelings of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None but without the intricate plotting of the Queen of Crime. When guests gather on a remote Irish island for a lavish wedding, none of them could know that their trip would end in murder. Unfortunately for Jules and her future husband Will, that’s exactly what happens. When their guests gather on the island, they find their pasts mixing with their present. Tensions mount and long-held grudges start to bubble over. Secrets start spilling out and, by the end of the night, there are plenty of people out for blood. But who is the mystery victim that a young waitress stumbled across in the bog?
Well, it’s not entirely a mystery. It’s not only really obvious from the start which character is going to be killed off, but it’s also really easy to figure out who did it. This is one of those crime thrillers that doesn’t so much weave an intricate narrative but one that keeps adding suspects in an attempt to confuse the reader. Unfortunately, each of the twists is so horrendously signposted that you don’t really need to figure anything out. Which means you spend the entire book just waiting for the obvious to happen. Foley is a very readable author, so that wouldn’t normally be a problem. However, her need to drag out the story for as long as humanly possible does get frustrating.
And then there’s the problem with the atmosphere. Again, Foley is manufacturing this using pathetic fallacy. The tension mounts as the storm kicks in but it’s all so fake. I found this novel so transparent that there was never any sense of impending doom. I went into this knowing exactly how it would end and that doesn’t exactly provide a frightening experience. The book promises chills and terror but it just annoyed me. I mean it was so contrived and the plot didn’t feel natural. This is a book full of stupid coincidences and it really took me out of the story. There is no scenario in which all of these people end up on an island together and in that scenario. It just makes the comparison with Agatha Christie even more ridiculous. Christie carefully constructs plots based on realistic human behaviour. Foley seems to care more about the spectacle than she does in the story.