Must-read books this January

James Walton

A rousing return to the whodunit tradition and a compulsive read from a master storyteller are our top literary picks this month

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley (HarperCollins, £12.99)

One publishing trend predicted for 2019 is the return of the more conventional whodunit after years of psychological-thriller dominance. And if that leads to more books like The Hunting Party, we’re in for a treat.

Nine old university friends, now in their thirties, are spending New Year together in the Scottish Highlands when, in the traditional way, a snowstorm cuts them off from the outside world—and means that, when one of them is murdered, the killer must be in their midst…

But, in fact, this isn’t just a whodunit but also a whowasitdunto. The body is discovered on the first page—yet, as we flash back to the previous days’ events, Lucy Foley tantalisingly refuses to reveal whose body it is. Meanwhile, she deftly adds a few psychological-thriller devices to the mix as well, including multiple narrators and the theme of how little we really know other people. She’s very good, too, on the unspoken rivalries, even dislike, that can underlie long-term friendships.

Fortunately, though, the solution to the murder always remains the novel’s main driving force—and Foley serves up her clues, red herrings and eventual answer with irresistible aplomb.

 

The Wall by John Lanchester (Faber, £17.99)

John Lanchester’s last novel, Capital—which became a hit BBC drama series—combined a thoughtful analysis of modern Britain with bags of great story-telling. His new one now pulls off a similar trick, although in a very different way. Most obviously, instead of careful social realism, we get a futuristic tale—or possibly parable—about a Britain surrounded by a huge coastal wall. This has been designed to keep out “the Others”, who are looking for sanctuary after a global climatic catastrophe known as “the Change”.

The narrator is Kavanagh, just starting his two-year stint as a Wall Defender that all young Brits are obliged to carry out. In the opening chapters, every aspect of life on the Wall is powerfully imagined; although for a while it’s difficult to see how this will be enough for a 280-page novel. But then… well, I won’t give away what happens—except that the book develops into a thrilling, action-packed adventure, without abandoning its broader anxieties about our divided world. The result is a rare blend of the unputdownable and the deeply melancholy.