I’m not a big reader of crime fiction, as I generally don’t care whodunnit. I find the Gone Girls and Girl on a Trains of the world engaging as far as they explore character and motivation, but the genre is notoriously difficult to pull off and I usually find the denouement is a disappointment, or too-easily guessed, with a predictable red herring thrown in for good measure.
Not so Lucy Foley’s crime debut The Hunting Party. It’s been impossible to miss the success of this and Lucy’s second crime novel, The Guest List - and knowing her a little bit through the publishing industry made me doubly curious. Looking for something to suit the final cold nights by the fire, this house-party-gone-bad set in an isolated Scottish hunting lodge was the perfect choice.
The real genius of the novel is this: the murder is announced immediately, but not only do you not know who committed it until the last moment, but you don’t know who is dead. In this, Lucy set herself a doubly-ambitious challenge, but one that’s pulled off brilliantly.
Nine old friends get together for New Year's Eve in a remote Scottish hunting lodge. Now in their early thirties, their history stretches back to university, and they’ve been spending new year together every year since. The novel is ostensibly set over just three days – 30th December 2018 to 2nd January 2019 – but to all intents and purpose its timespan covers the previous ten years.
The story is narrated by the key characters in turn, each chapter revealing more about the history of the friendship group, uncovering feuds, resentments and numerous possible motivations for both potential killer and potential victim. Interspersed with the friends’ narratives are the stories of the sullen gamekeeper and the house manager, both of whom are clearly escaping their own pasts.
The novel explores the paradox of friendship, more often than not riven with power games, casting each individual in their own role from the outset but, no matter how toxic the dynamics, enduring over decades through an original shared experience.
It invites consideration as to how difficult it is to break bonds formed in youth or via a life event (such as new parenthood), no matter how paths may diverge and relationships sour. Our lives are long and varied, and our personalities changed by experience, but our roles in these early friendship groups are strangely binding.
The format of the country-house murder mystery is of course nothing new, but The Hunting Party is clearly positioned as an update. The characters are successful London professionals, but there’s no whiff of old money - the house is a luxury holiday let (owned by a shady wheeler-dealer in London) rather than somebody’s ancestral estate, and the two members of staff are educated and of a similar age to the guests, albeit having endured very different life experiences. It feels fresh and contemporary whilst at the same time giving a nod to a long tradition.
I can honestly say that this is the most tightly-plotted novel I’ve ever read, whilst charged with the depth that puts it squarely into the category of a modern psychological thriller. It contains plenty of red herrings, but brilliant ones – I guessed the identity of either the killer or the victim – and the relatable protagonists make us reflect on the cast of characters in our own lives. Highly recommended for those last cold nights before summer finally arrives.