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  • Adam Tye

The Guest List: Murdering the Mystery

Like every genre, the Murder Mystery/Whodunnit is liable to a lot of surface-level flexibility, wherein an author can take the skeleton of the story and shuffle it around to accommodate different settings or subject matters. This has been happening for over a century now: first the murder happens in a library; next time it’s on a boat (Death on the Nile); now it’s on a train (Murder on the Orient Express); now it’s an upstairs/downstairs drama (Gosford Park); now it’s a takedown of tech-bro billionaires (Glass Onion), and so on so forth.

But for my money, the most interesting results have always come from the more formal, structural experiments: where an author will dig down into the bones and rules of Murder Mysteries and rearrange them to create something new. We’ve seen it most recently and famously with Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which reveals the circumstances of the murder at the end of Act One, then shifts gears into a thriller for the remaining runtime, before a final sequence reveals the true extent of the crime committed. In that film, Johnson was attempting to reconcile his love of Whodunnits with a problem posed by Alfred Hitchcock decades earlier: that the Murder Mystery mode of storytelling relies too much on withholding story in favour of a final shock reveal. In a way you could say that the restless iterations on the genre over the years have been a series of attempts to solve this conundrum - intentional or otherwise.

The Guest List is another addition to the list of Murder Mysteries that rearrange the rules in order to create something bold and new. Taking place over two days, and cycling through a number of character-perspectives, Lucy Foley's crime novel looks at first glance to be a unassuming tale of murder during an island-getaway wedding, as differences both petty and lethal simmer to the surface, before a body is found during the reception. It may not strike as the most original premise, but Foley uses this tried-and-tested launching point to smuggle in one of the genre’s strangest exercises yet, wherein not only is the identity of the murderer withheld until the final chapters, but so is the victim. It’s a laudable attempt at violating one of the central tenets of mystery writing. It’s also an incredible lesson in why Whodunnit crime stories typically do not do this.

Right out of the gate, The Guest List raises the red flags, with the opening chapter detailing a fraught wedding reception and possible murder, before a ‘One Day Earlier’ title page rewinds to the guests arriving on the island. The rest of the book shifts gears back and forth between the two duelling timelines, with the sections before the reception bouncing around the character’s POVs to build motives, whilst the ‘future’ sections inch the hunt for the victim forward one agonising step at a time.

As a method for hiding all the information, this is undeniably effective, and it allows Foley to spend more time crafting her novel around characters, rather than falling prey entirely to mechanics. The book is written in multiple first-person perspectives, and whilst there is little-to-no distinction in writing style and voice between the different people, their psychology is always clear, and the resulting actions are always coherent - a commendable feat for a series of characters who are all, to varying degrees, faintly insufferable.

But as savvy as Foley’s structure is at holding back the tide of schematic over-plotting, it only takes a handful of chapters to realise that the delayed information is actually delayed gratification, as The Guest List keeps kicking the murder-mystery of it all further and further down the field.

This is most apparent in the flash-forward sections, which divide their narrative progress into minuscule steps. First the guests hear about the murder. Then when we return a few chapters later, they have decided to go look for the victim. Then fifty pages later they are on the hunt. Another fifty pages later, and they are still on the hunt, but one of them is now scared. Like watching celery brown in the midday sun, it’s a soul-crushing and calorie-free experience. One particularly insidious cliffhanger lays this cynicism bare, as the chapter’s ending remark of ‘we all stared in silence at what the man carried in his hand’ is revealed to later be ‘the man was carrying a torch.’

You can sense the intent behind this temporal pivoting is to conjure a feeling of showmanship and storytelling bravura, but the end result is unfortunately one more of cowardice; a fear that the story on its own terms will not be enough, and so we must delay, delay, delay until the audience feels like they are bearing witness to a magic trick. For as much as Foley’s delaying of the murder gives the novel more time to attend to the characters on their own terms, it also gives them nothing to do. As I mentioned earlier, these are deeply unlikable people, and instead of being generous with them, Foley places them all into a warbling state of inaction, as each piece of backstory is hidden behind endless security layers of plot-blocking. When there is no story, there is nothing for the cast to act towards, and so the connections between them are rarely unearthed naturally, instead popping out arbitrarily whenever a given character has decided it’s time to finally spill the beans. And it’s this sense of strained obscurity that proves to be the novel’s undoing.

When I think back on a lot of my favourite puzzle narratives, the twists at the end are never guessable - not in their entirety. There is always some extra motivation, some crucial piece of the puzzle that is withheld. The trick - the sleight of hand - is in making that final information click naturally with the preceding roller-coaster, so that a reader/viewer can look back and see that behaviour at work, right in plain sight. In some respects, it is an elaborate Kuleshov effect - the cinematic technique in which an image’s emotional intent changes depending on what image is placed next to it. Similarly, twist endings are less about pointing out what the reader has missed, and more about offering a new interpretation to be applied over a text that was never giving you the whole picture: a new image to placed in sequence with the old.

Two examples of the Kuleshov effect. Row 1 implies hunger. Row 2 implies desire (more info needed).

The Guest List reaches but fails to do this. The reveal of the victim - the narrative carrot that Foley dangles - operates less as a ticking clock for the reader, and more a brazen obfuscation of the real story. For much of the page count, there is no murder in this murder mystery - just an endless spooling of motivations for a victim that has not yet been revealed. And whilst I admire that commitment to character above clockwork plot, the result is a narrative that cannot operate or move forward. When we say that a murder mystery 'plays fair', we usually mean that the final result maps neatly on top of the machinations that we've been witnessing. But The Guest List has no machinations - it has vagueness: a vagueness that is exposed when the body is finally found and we are treated to a meagre thirty pages of actual mystery before the murderer is revealed.

What frustrates the most about the novel, however, is how much it shines when not tripping up over its own lack of confidence. Whilst the novel is in dire need of a broader-picture edit-job, Foley's prose on a sentence level is sharp and smooth. I never felt any friction, or that I was experiencing something unclear, and that owes an awful lot to how fast I was able to read it. And although it is a problem that the book places so much of its chips into delayed reveals (too many of which fail to surprise), coherent outcomes in a book are rarely cause for dismay, and I'm happy to take them as a sign that Foley's character writing was consistent, rather than that it was too predictable. In perhaps the most agonising victory of all, however, the thirty pages of actual murder mystery between the victim being identified and the murder being solved are totally compelling. In that sequence you can feel the positives of the experience sharpen: the narrative picks up propulsion, and you want to keep pushing to reach that catharsis.

So, with The Guest List we have an admirable failure, rather than a bland success. I think most authors would be happy to take the former, given the choice, yet I feel the content at the heart of this structural experiment slipping from my head with every passing minute, and I wonder if perhaps admirable failures aren't exempt from blandness too. If, as I earlier suggested, the Murder Mystery genre has been a long-running attempt to solve Hitchcock’s criticism, then The Guest List is a fascinating swing-and-a-miss, as Foley’s character-driven angst falls prey to the lack of coherent mystery and drama underpinning it. When you withhold details, you withhold your own story, and The Guest List holds it all back for far too long: both the murder, and the mystery alike.

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