Lucy Foley on Closed Circle Murder Mysteries
In her two compelling thrillers, The Hunting Party and The Guest List, Lucy Foley has proved herself a skilful proponent of the closed circle whodunit, where a motley assortment of individuals find themselves marooned in an isolated environment with a killer on the loose. In this exclusive piece, Lucy explains why this particular technique is so effective in crime fiction.
In my murder mystery novel, The Guest List, the isolated setting – a deserted island off the west coast of Ireland – serves two functions. Firstly, I wanted it to feel like an exclusive spot that a golden couple like Jules and Will, the ‘happy couple’ in question, would choose for their nuptials. It’s somewhere ruggedly beautiful and out of the way in which all their guests can really let their hair down – which they do, with some fairly dramatic consequences . . . But secondly, I wanted it to feel like somewhere that could shift fairly rapidly from a beautiful escape to an isolated prison as it becomes apparent that a storm is brewing, both out in the Atlantic and among the assembled party – a murderer is on the loose and the boats can’t come. The island is, in a sense, like a character in the novel: turning on the characters as they begin to turn on one another, hostile and unforgiving.
The isolated setting is always a winner, whether the action takes place on a broken-down train, a Nile riverboat or in a snowbound house – see Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile and Cyril Hare’s An English Murder respectively.
As a writer I particularly enjoy this ‘closed’ environment because of the way in which it ring-fences all of the suspects. The characters are all trapped in one place, including the murderer. In a sense a murder mystery is like a puzzle, or a ‘game’ created by the writer for the reader to solve, and this sort of setting very clearly sets out the rules of that game for the reader. It tells them to closely scrutinise each of the characters, their motivations and their behaviour, and also to carefully examine how they interact with those around them. I don’t have a Poirot or Miss Marple-esque ‘sleuth’ figure in either of my murder mystery novels – The Hunting Party and The Guest List. This is partly because I wanted to remove some of the cosiness that I feel inevitably comes with knowing you’re going to have a brilliant mind sit everyone down and explain everything at the end of the book, but also because I wanted to put the reader in the position of detective instead. By presenting them with this closed setting I am providing them with their pool of suspects to ‘interrogate’ as they go.
This sort of setting creates an instant atmosphere of urgency and claustrophobia and also a sense of reckoning. My favourite Agatha Christie novel – and possibly my favourite murder mystery of all time – is And Then There Were None. There’s so much to praise about it: the incredibly tight plotting; the cast of love-to-hate characters; the brilliant denouement. But one of the most striking things for me is the setting. It’s that idea of the boat leaving and not coming back, leaving all the characters stuck on the island. In this particular case they are forced to face both the prospect of being killed off, one by one, but they are also forced up against the fact of their own guilt: each has evaded punishment for a terrible crime in the past. In both The Guest List and The Hunting Party, my characters are removed from their comfortable lives and trapped in an isolated, even hostile, environment – nature red in tooth and claw – which also brings out a certain savage wilderness in the characters themselves as the masks they usually present to the outside world fall away. Robbed of all other distractions they are forced to look a little too closely at one another … but also at themselves. Past sins catch up with them and they are forced to confront their own demons. There is a sense of Fate catching up with them; they can no longer outrun their own pasts. And that is something I enjoy about the murder mystery format: there is the guarantee of a solution, often a sense of moral certainty, perhaps even a righting of wrongs. This has a certain appeal amidst the chaos and apparent randomness of real life, in which the guilty aren’t always caught and punished, or forced to atone for past acts.
In recent months we’ve all had to get rather used to the idea of isolation and perhaps experience the introspection and claustrophobia that it engenders for ourselves. So, I wonder if there is a peculiar, specific appeal in the closed setting for readers in 2020: perhaps the sense of isolation is all the more palpable, because we can identify so much more strongly with it from our own experience. But perhaps there’s also a kind of catharsis in it – we may be isolated, but at least we’re able to do so in large part at home with our creature comforts and not trapped with a cast of shady characters on a storm-battered island with a murderer on the loose! Small mercies…!
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