Peter Swanson is no stranger to crafting twisty thrillers, whether that’s the Hitchcock homage The Kind Worth Killing or the Agatha Christie love letter Nine Lives, earning himself a reputation for smart, twisty thrillers that never skimp on the mystery (nor the myriad of plot twists).
This time around he’s in a festive spirit with The Christmas Guest, an icy tale that follows Ashley, an American student studying in England who befriends a posh fellow student and is invited to spend the holidays with her family as Ashley is (naturally) an orphan. Having decamped to the picturesque Cotswold manor, Ashley soon begins to suspect that something dangerous is afoot and that there might be a killer somewhere in their party.
As an accomplished writer Swanson plays to his strengths, jumping about with narrative, time, and focus to help create suspense and tension as Ashley becomes more and more involved with the Chapman family. Tonally he aims for something like MR James, and while there’ll be no spoilers in this review about the presence of anything spectral, Swanson projects James’ expertise at building icily terrifying atmospheres, ensuring that even in the old, frozen Cotswolds, the readers feels positively claustrophobic.
That’s not to say that The Christmas Guest is without flaws; Swanson is known for his twists and sharp plot developments, but the ones in The Christmas Guest are more telegraphed than usual, and while it’s commendable to write a novella as opposed to a full-length novel, this same ambition means that it feels almost too short for proper character exploration and too long for the punchiness of a short story.
While it could have benefited from a little more nuance with its inevitable plot twists and character work, there’s a lot to enjoy about The Christmas Guest, making it an effective festive chiller that will no doubt prove another arrow to Swanson’s prolific bow and will provide the right reader with perfect material for a sleepless night or two.
The Christmas Guest is out on 28th September from Faber & Faber.