The Christmas Guest

The Christmas Guest by Peter Swanson was a captivating read, and as a novella of only 93 pages I was able to finish it in a single day, yet not in one sitting. Ashley Smith is an American art student in London, who ordinarily would have spent Christmas alone. She was surprised to receive an invitation to join her friend Emma Chapman at her family’s sprawling country manor over the holidays, and jumped at the chance.

The first part of the novella is comprised of Ashley’s diary entries. I found them to be realistic in tone and reflective of what a young woman might be thinking. Thankfully Swanson intended the entries to make sense to nosy readers, so he used few abbreviations (like E for Emma) and no code words. It would be typical of a diarist to use some form of literary disguises or shorthand. Ashley didn’t even use ampersands, spelling out and in full every time. I was able to read the diary entries as rapid streams of consciousness and wasn’t faced with trying to decipher what secret code Ashley had invented, which would have destroyed the experience.

Another reason Ashley was so eager to accept Emma’s offer is that she had a crush on Adam, Emma’s brother. When he picked her up at the train station, she wrote:

He did however offer me a cigarette and I said yes even though I’m only really a party smoker, but he was so aloof that I wanted to impress him. In the car I thanked him about a hundred times for picking me up so that eventually he had to tell me to stop thanking him. I stopped talking and figured that I’d already destroyed our love affair before it ever started.

The entries were all in italics, so the first half of the book was presented in a slanted font. Some italic fonts are at such an extreme slant that I find them illegible, yet I was able to read these without difficulty.

Ashley recorded her impressions of staying in such a grand estate, and wrote about the Chapman family members who were staying over as well as the guests who stopped by. I had a chuckle as she was first finding her way around the house:

After breakfast I wandered a little through the house, feeling unmoored. I found E’s mum and asked her if there was something I could do to help and she looked at me confused, as though I’d just asked her where I could buy drugs.

In the first part, at only 49 pages, Swanson created a wholly believable mise-en-scène where a murder had been committed where the prime suspect was Adam. The second part of the novella got to the bottom of the crime and the devious scheme he and Emma plotted to get him off the hook.

The second part was displayed in a standard font, so we were no longer reading Ashley’s diary. After a reproduction of a newspaper article, part two began:

“I killed Ashley Smith that Christmas Eve. This was back when I was called Emma Chapman.”

I will not ruin the rest of the story by explaining what the above confession means, but I did sit for a good long time trying to figure it out. Without finding an answer from remembering what I had already read, I put the mystery to the back of my head and read on. I assured myself that with only forty pages remaining, the mystery would soon be resolved.

Swanson created a credible motive to explain why “Emma Chapman” killed Ashley, and how she and her brother schemed to get her to their mansion in the first place. The aftermath of the killing is stunning reading, and you get into the conscience of “Emma Chapman” decades later.

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