The Overnight Guest by Heather Gudenkauf

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In her latest thriller, Heather Gudenkauf takes readers down a dark and suspenseful hole, keeping them on the edge of their seats. True-crime writer Wilie Lark is finishing her most recent book during a massive winter storm. She has rented the isolated farmhouse in which, 20 years ago, the horrific murders featured in her book took place.

Gudenkauf’s novel unfolds through three timelines: the present day in the farmhouse with Wilie; 20 years ago in the farmhouse, the night leading up to and the days following the murders; and short glimpses into the life of a young girl living with her mom at an undisclosed time. In the present day, unsolved murder researcher and writer Wilie Lark is holed up in an old farmhouse attempting to finish her most recent manuscript. She doesn’t mind the isolation, even as the winter storm of the year swells and bellows around her. She prepares to hunker down for the cold night when her dog discovers something in the snow. Wilie dons layers of winter clothes to investigate and finds a young boy nearly frozen to death. She brings him inside and though Wilie hasn’t done anything to harm the child, he is clearly terrified of her and refuses to speak.

Certain that the boy couldn’t have walked all the way to the isolated farmhouse without proper winter gear, Wilie bundles up again to search for anyone else. She finds a woman tangled in barbed wire not far from an overturned truck. Wilie goes to get wire cutters to help free the woman, but by the time she returns, the woman has disappeared. Wilie continues to attempt to gain the trust of the young boy as she tries to piece together who he is and where he came from.

On August 12, 2000, Josie Doyle laughed as she enjoyed the sleepover with her best friend, Becky Allen. The two had slipped out of the hot house to jump on the trampoline in the night air, when earsplitting bangs and flashes of light exploded from Josie’s parents’ bedroom. Terrified, the two girls began running toward the cornfield, desperate for a chance to hide from whoever was attacking Josie’s family. As they ran hand in hand, Becky fell. Josie tried to get Becky back up, but after feeling searing pain and blood dripping down her arm from a grazing gunshot wound, Josie left Becky and fled to cover in the tall corn stalks. The 12-year-old stood frozen all night in the field, too scared to move or look for help, petrified that the killer was still hunting her.

By the morning light, Josie emerged and discovered that both of her parents were dead and her 16-year-old brother and Becky were missing. Theories and suspicions abounded from the police and neighbors alike, everyone with their own convictions. Josie’s brother, who had been fighting with her parents and was generally mad at the world, seemed to be the most likely suspect. As the suspect pool grew, the reader suspensefully knows that the killer hasn’t been brought to justice yet since in the present day, Wilie is finishing up her most recent unsolved-murder book.

The third timeline feels almost out of place, as there isn’t any real story unfolding. The reader gets short glimpses of a young girl with her mom who fears the sporadic and threatening visits from her dad. The reader is left wondering who this girl is and how she’s connected to an abandoned farmhouse and 20-year-old unsolved murders.

In the primary timelines, readers jump back and forth between two equally compelling and mysterious stories that seem to be entirely unrelated. Gudenkauf masterfully pulls them into the plots, keeping them guessing and turning the pages as rapidly as possible. The interruption of the obscure timeline distracts only briefly before returning to the suspenseful main stories. Slowly, the pieces fall into place, leading to a dramatic climax and resolution, tying all three story lines together in an unexpected way.

Gudenkauf has skillfully created relatable and real characters who are simultaneously likable and fallible. Twelve-year-old Josie made selfish decisions, one of which meant leaving her best friend behind to save herself. She battles with trauma and guilt as the search parties scour the area for her brother and friend. Wilie wanted to do right by this boy and woman she found in the storm, yet her own marriage has fallen apart and she hasn’t spoken to her son in months. She refused to shy away from helping strangers yet chose to isolate herself in a remote farmhouse where two people were murdered. Her career as a true-crime researcher and writer brought her to the scene of this crime, but maybe this time, she can get some answers when no one from the year 2000 could.