Anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested human beings can maintain about 150 different relationships, although we devote the majority of our social attention to only about 15. That’s why I like books and movies that focus on a few people. I’m a human being. I have a limited attention span. My trade off is, if you only give me a few people, I can really dig into them.
Lucy Foley’s “The Hunting Party” opens swimming with characters, as if the book is going to spread its attention among a spacious cast. However, it quickly pares things down to focus on a core group. This certainly helps it become a more effective read, although its merits as a thriller are still debatable.
The novel begins with a group of old friends, a decade out of college, spending New Year’s Eve at a remote mountain lodge in the Scottish Highlands. The first couple of nights are boisterous. Booze flows and friends reminisce. But soon old wounds are uncovered and rivalries revived, and one of the guests does not survive into the new year. With the lodge cut off by winter weather, and a killer clearly in their midst, tensions mount. No one, not even the friendly staff, seems above suspicion.
Once it’s got all of its character introductions out of the way, “The Hunting Party” focuses on a few characters: Heather, Emma, Katie, Doug and Miranda. That’s still five different narrators, but as the book gradually unfolds their distinct voices emerge. Miranda is critical; Katie is self-effacing; Heather is introspective, and their narration styles reflect this.
The side effect is that the other characters, who were initially somewhat indistinct, can remain pretty indistinct. I’m kind of OK with that, since one of themes of the book seems to be that we can never truly know who someone else is, even if we’ve grown up with them or worked with them for years.
There are mechanical issues. For one thing, the narrative puts everything in the present tense. Normally that drives me nuts, but I thought I was going to be OK with that too, since we were jumping from one character to the next with a regular rhythm. The present tense prose read like we were experiencing their thoughts in real time. The problem is, it’s not real time. The narrative jumps time as well as character, so the stuff that’s happening “now” is in present tense, but so is the stuff that’s happening “two days ago.”
That makes me ask questions like, which present is this–her present or his present? It’s not my present. Why not put this present in present tense and that present from two days earlier in past tense? Wouldn’t that be more organized? This wasn’t a deal breaker, but it definitely took me out of the action every time I thought about it.
And it’s not the time jumping that gets me. Actually, out of all the narrative quirks, the time jump is the nicest because it allows for the most interesting element of the book. The novel opens with a murder but is very careful not to identify the victim. Then it jumps back and forth to the investigation and to the events leading up to the murder, so it’s as much a who-got-dun-in as a whodunit.
But there’s one thing the time jumps can’t fix. “The Hunting Party” has some depth and some pathos, and the characters that are developed are played against each other effectively. But other than the murder we know will happen eventually, there’s not a lot of suspense. The book is fine as a psychodrama, but not that great as a psychological thriller.
In fact, readers expecting thrills and chills might find the tension to be a let down. Some new twist is uncovered every few chapters, but it’s usually a revelation about a relationship. At best, it’s a little soapy. At worst, it’s a little silly.
Also, the front cover promises that “everyone’s a suspect.” That’s just not true. I eliminated most of the suspects in the first third of the book. In fact, I had a pretty good idea who was gonna get done in and who was gonna done it by the time we entered the final third. The former was pretty logical and satisfying. The latter I figured out by a complete fluke. I won’t say any more than that. Maybe you’ll like it.
“The Hunting Party” is well written, with elegant prose and snappy dialogue and some appropriate themes that aren’t simply slammed over the reader’s head. But it falls short as a psychological thriller. It’s not thrilling enough, or intellectually piercing enough, to escape melodrama. It’s not bad at all. It’s just a little disappointing.