The Closed Circle Mystery by Lucy FoleyJul 18, 2021
The closed circle is a beloved sub-genre of mystery, suspense and thriller fiction.
It refers to a crime, usually a murder, for which there are a limited number of suspects, each with credible means, motive, and opportunity. The criminal (murderer) is one of the people present at or nearby the scene, and the crime could not have been committed by some outsider. The detective has to solve the crime, figuring out the criminal from this pool (circle) of suspects, rather than searching for a totally unknown perpetrator.
From the Desk of Lucy Foley.
My favourite Agatha Christie novel – and possibly my favourite murder mystery of all time – is And Then There Were None. There’s the tight plotting, the wonderfully awful cast of love-to-hate characters, the sheer astonishing brilliance of the reveal. But first and foremost for me is the closed circle setting. The island is a menacing, deadly presence from the outset. It’s that idea of the boat leaving them all there and never coming back: the building horror and claustrophobia as they realise they’re stuck on the island with a killer intent on making them pay for past sins. Because they’re forced to face up not just to the prospect of being picked off one by one but also to their own guilty secrets, each knowing that they have evaded punishment for a terrible crime in the past. For me, it is the closed circle murder mystery par excellence. It’s also the book that made me want to try writing something similar myself, in a modern context. Both of my books, The Hunting Party and The Guest List, are in a way a homage to it and to my other favourite closed circle Christies: Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile.
In The Guest List, the setting – a deserted island off the coast of Connemara, Ireland – serves two purposes. Firstly, I wanted it to feel like the sort of spot that a glamorous couple like Jules and Will, the ‘happy couple’ in question, would choose for their wedding: somewhere ruggedly beautiful and out of the way, somewhere all their guests can really let their hair down, somewhere that feels exclusive and private in its remoteness. At the same time, I wanted it to feel like a place that could shift fairly rapidly from a beautiful escape to an isolated, isolating prison as it becomes apparent that a storm is on its way, sweeping in from out to sea — and that there’s a different kind of storm burgeoning among the assembled party as long-buried secrets rise to the surface. The landscape mirrors what is happening within the group and 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.
In both The Guest List and The Hunting Party, my characters are trapped in an increasingly wild 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, particularly with the closed circle setting: there is the guarantee of a solution and often a sense of moral certainty, perhaps even a righting of wrongs, despite the bloodshed. 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.
As a writer, a closed circle setting is a fantastic tool. The isolation ringfences your characters and forces them under the microscope. They’re stripped back to their most essential selves. They’re exposed in a way that somehow feels natural and inevitable, because when we are removed from our creature comforts and our familiar environments we are exposed, quite quickly we find ourselves out of our depth. Such a setting forces your characters to interact with one another like difficult relatives cooped together at a family Christmas. It’s a pressure cooker situation in which animosities and previously concealed secrets are bound to rise to the surface.
The ‘closed’ environment sets out the narrative as a puzzle for the reader to solve. 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 book. 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 want 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.
Let the games begin!
Lucy Foley worked for several years as a fiction editor in the publishing industry - during which time she wrote The Book of Lost and Found, which was a bestselling debut of 2015. Her first crime novel, The Hunting Party, was a Sunday Times Bestseller. The Guest List was published to great acclaim and achieved bestseller status in 2020 and her new novel The Paris Apartment will be published in 2022.
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