Book Chat: ‘The Hunting Party’ by Lucy Foley

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

All of them are friends. One of them is a killer.

During the languid days of the Christmas break, a group of thirtysomething friends from Oxford meet to welcome in the New Year together, a tradition they began as students ten years ago. For this vacation, they’ve chosen an idyllic and isolated estate in the Scottish Highlands—the perfect place to get away and unwind by themselves.

They arrive on December 30th, just before a historic blizzard seals the lodge off from the outside world. Two days later, on New Year’s Day, one of them is dead.

The trip began innocently enough: admiring the stunning if foreboding scenery, champagne in front of a crackling fire, and reminiscences about the past. But after a decade, the weight of secret resentments has grown too heavy for the group’s tenuous nostalgia to bear. Amid the boisterous revelry of New Year’s Eve, the cord holding them together snaps.  Now one of them is dead . . . and another of them did it.

Keep your friends close, the old adage goes. But just how close is too close?

Agatha Christie is one of my favourite authors, and my absolute go-to if I want a quick comfort read fix. If publishers declare one of their books as a book for fans of hers, I’ll almost definitely be lured in but you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m judging that book just a little more harshly than I otherwise might. Thankfully The Hunting Party fared well even with the Christie comparison lurking in the back of my mind.

The premise isn’t that unique – a group of old friends head to a lodge in the middle of nowhere in the Scottish highlands for a New Year’s Eve celebration. A snowstorm sweeps in and cuts the lodge off from the rest of civilisation, which becomes all the more unfortunate when one of the group is murdered. There are plenty of novels treading that familiar ground. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say The Hunting Party was a complete revelation in crime fiction, there is enough that will keep you guessing to make it worth a few hours of your time on a gloomy evening this winter. In this slight twist on the classic, readers are kept in the dark not only on the identity of the murderer but also the identity of the victim. Obviously we know that someone has died from the opening couple of chapters, but not who. There are chapters following the group on New Year’s Day after discovery of a body, while most are set a couple of days earlier and show the celebrations starting out and gradually souring.

To be honest, there were moments where I would have been happy for every single one of the characters to be the unlucky one. If you’re one of those readers who needs to like and identify with the characters in a novel, The Hunting Party probably isn’t for you. This bunch of Oxbridge graduates is pretty gross. They’re all varying degrees of pretentious, selfish and mean-spirited. They treat each other appallingly and there are grudges and secrets that gradually out. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend one actual night with the group but I was completely obsessed with reading about them. I know it’s a cliche when it comes to thrillers but I did absolutely tear through this and it’s so easy to just keep turning the pages.

Alongside all of that victim-murderer headline plot are some smaller, more personal mysteries. Looking after the lodge guests are Heather and Doug, both of whom clearly have their own reasons for taking a job on an estate in the middle of nowhere. The novel shifts perspectives, with Heather and Doug both providing  outsiders’ views on the central group and narrating the ‘present day’ sections. In some thriller novels, there are chapters that are weaker and there to just move along the plot but I was still invested in Heather and Doug and there were no lulls in pace for me. Just a solid thriller all round!

Overall:  Winter is the perfect time to pick up The Hunting Party! For British readers, it’s also surprisingly nice to read a book with British slang and current cultural references. It’s sharp and so readable and witty. Get on it.

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Date finished: 10 December 2019

Pictured edition published: by HarperCollins UK in January 2019

Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley

Book Chat: ‘A House of Ghosts’ by W. C. Ryan

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A House of Ghosts popped up in my inbox one day pitched by NetGalley as “And Then There Were None meets The Silent Companions“.  One of my favourite books of all time crossed with one of the best books I read in 2017? There was absolutely no way I could resist requesting it. My expectations were sky high when I first downloaded it so I suppose it’s probably a good thing that I left it a couple of months before I actually picked it up.

In some ways, I feel like it’s slightly unfair of me to burden those of you who are also big fans of either one of those books with my lofty expectation too because A House of Ghosts isn’t quite either of them. The conclusion that I’ve come to though is that actually in a way it is fair because it might nudge you to read this and then your life will be just a little bit better. Because while A House of Ghosts might well not be either of the novels that it seems to be being likened to, it is a really good one.

It’s set during World War I, on a remote island off the southern coast of England where Lord Highmount has convened a group of family and friends to host a seance to attempt to contact his two sons, who are believed to have died while serving on the Western Front.  After all of the guests have arrived, a storm cuts off the only route on and off the island, phone lines are tampered with (obviously) and events take a turn for the creepy.

The plot is one of those delightful tangles where everybody seems to have a solid motive for wanting at least one of the other residents of the abbey dead. I know that it’s a bit of cliche but as soon as the guests start feeling threatened, the secrets start tumbling out. Most of the story is told from the perspectives of Kate Cartwright and Captain Donovan, tasked with keeping an eye on Blackwater Abbey’s residents. I loved them both individually for different reasons and together they are perfection. Their relationship is so well written and them getting to know each other is the heartwarming light touch to what is an otherwise quite dark narrative.

Because not only is A House of Ghosts a cracking mystery, it also taps perfectly into the emotional effects of World War I, both on those that had served in the army and made it home and on those bearing the whole tragedy out at home.  The fraught emotions, the awful uncertainty of not knowing what happened to family members who were pronounced “missing, presumed dead” and the distrust of those in positions of power making decisions affecting thousands, including the story’s very own Lord Highmount, owner of an arms manufacturing empire. Murder alongside war might sound a bit much but the fine line is trodden sensitively.

Even with all of the mention of seances, I didn’t quite expect the novel to be as…otherworldly as it is. I don’t think that it’s a spoiler to say that the book doesn’t just hint at ghostly goings on, it properly commits to the paranormal. You might need to suspend your sense of disbelief fairly regularly but I didn’t find it too much, even if it was a little disorientating at first. Readers of ‘traditional’ crime fiction might not be a fan but if you’re ok with your hauntings being more literal, you’ll be just fine.

Overall: The writing is sharp and so wonderfully British feeling. The plot is well paced and A House of Ghosts is nothing if not a page turner. If you’re looking for a winter read that is just a little bit different, this one should be appearing on your wishlist.

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Date finished: 25 November 2018

Pictured edition published: by Zaffre on 04 October 2018

Source: Received from the published in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley