A number of strangers converge for a weekend at Mitchell’s Inn in the Catskills, most seeking a short respite from their daily lives. When one couple, Lauren and Ian, notice a car off the road in a snow bank near the inn, they are happy to assist the two women in distress, all headed for the same destination. The couple and the two women, one a veteran of Afghanistan, join a roster that includes an elderly couple prone to marital bickering, an introverted author, an attorney and a newly engaged couple.
Given the recent spate of storms, the inn is short-staffed, only the owner and his son present to meet the needs of their guests. The weekend guests are assured that the inn is well-prepared to handle any emergencies, with oil lamps, candles and plenty of food. Strangers all, the guests settle in to a cozy winter scene, a roaring fireplace the centerpiece for a room filled with comfortable chairs and couches, a welcoming bar and rooms looking out on a snowy landscape. Everyone is in good spirits, meeting new friends, all enchanted by Dana, a striking woman, and her handsome, wealthy fiancé, Michael. Even when the inn loses power, the guests are amenable, though loss of contact with the outside world is a problem.
The loss of power proves a critical problem when Dana is found dead at the foot of the stairs the next morning. The guests are awakened by a piercing scream when Lauren discovers the body. They gather around the body, though David Paley, the attorney, cautions them to leave the scene untouched until the authorities arrive. A sense of foreboding settles over the group, tiptoeing around the dead woman as though she wasn’t there. But the question of suicide loses favor when another quest is found dead in her room (shades of Agatha Christie). Suspicion spreads among them, a slow poisoning of trust: “One may smile and smile and be a villain.”
Though Lapena’s storytelling feels familiar, she salts her tale with the particularities of strangers under siege and increasingly terrified as their numbers dwindle: a veteran whose PTSD accelerates into debilitating paranoia; the simmering rage of a wife whose marriage turns bitter and loveless; a writer sensing a better story than she is currently writing; a young man flirting with blackmail; ugly secrets spilled by people forced to cohabit with a murderer.
A popular writer with two prior mysteries, Lapena holds her cards close, sidestepping the predictable. She gives an old, respected dramatic formula--the closed-room mystery--a fresh look, mining her characters for the human detritus that surfaces under dire circumstances. The tension is enhanced by its surroundings, nature an unavoidable character, brutal, unrelenting and deadly.