“Whodunit” stories often follow a formula. A group of people meet in a secluded location, such as a mansion or a train. The individuals are introduced and they hint at hidden confilcts and emnities. Suddenly, one of the group is murdered. Everyone is a suspect. A detective, as a surrogate for the reader, investigates and finds clues and hidden motives. The detective’s life may be put into danger. Finally, the detective gathers the suspects and describes how the crime occurred, why the victim was killed, and who the murderer is.
The Guest List by Lucy Foley (2019’s The Hunting Party) cleverly alters this formula by removing not only the detective, but also the post-crime investigation. Foley does this through flashback chapters that turn the book from a “whodunit” into a “who’lldoit.”
The Guest List takes place in a vintage “whodunit” setting. The story begins during a wedding reception on a small island off the coast of Ireland on a “dark and stormy night” (although that phrase isn’t actually used). The island has a family graveyard, high cliffs, dark caves, and treacherous bogs that hold century-old bodies.
Suddenly, during the storm, the power goes out, and the guests hear a scream of terror.
From there, the book flashes back to the day before the wedding with POV chapters from the book’s five suspects:
- The Bride: Jules, the ambitious head of a successful website, who is marrying Will, a reality TV star.
- The Bridesmaid: Olivia, the bride’s 19 year old, half-sister who is “going through some things.”
- The Best Man: Johnno, Will’s life-long best friend, who is less successful than Will and their rich boarding school friends.
- The Wedding Planner: Aiofe, the island owner, who wants a successful event to promote her business.
- The “Plus One:” Hannah, the wife of Jule’s best friend, Charlie, who is restless with her domestic life.
Each of these characters has a secret (sometimes more) as well as a motive to commit murder. The victim’s identify is itself a mystery for much of the book, although, one that is not difficult to guess. The flashback chapters proceed chronologically towards the murder with “Wedding Night” chapters scattered between to show the hunt for the victim’s body.
As the chapters go by, the secrets and motives are revealed. In a few instances, the reader discovers a character’s motive at the same moment the character does. The pieces of The Guest List’s puzzle initially emerge slowly, perhaps too slowly. However, once the wedding ceremony is over, the pieces assemble at a quick pace. As the reception starts, the storm hits and characters venture into the dark to confront the victim with his/her misdeeds. Each of the characters remain a suspect until the murder itself occurs and it’s revealed “whodunit.”
With the use of her flashback chapters, Foley injects an element of freshness into the The Guest List that sets it apart from the standard “whodunit.” With that element and Foley’s expert storytelling, The Guest List is a fun, suspenseful read for a long weekend.