Photo: Joey Stuart
‘A Death at the Party’: Amy Stuart’s New Stand-alone Thriller Is a Whydunit
In a Q&A, the bestselling Canadian author talks about Agatha Christie, 'Mrs. Dalloway' and dramatic irony / BY Rosemary Counter / March 8th, 2023
In almost every other book, it would probably be a spoiler if the protagonist watched a murdered man die on page one —in her own house and right in the middle of the fancy party she’s throwing, no less. Not for Toronto author Amy Stuart, whose A Death at the Party does just that. The whydunit, that rare cousin to the flashier whodunit, is no easy writerly feat. Why start with the end and work backward? And how will readers still root for a maybe-murderer hostess? We called Amy Stuart, the bestselling author of Still Mine, Still Water and Still Here, to find out.
Rosemary Counter: I burned right through your book on a Dominican beach! It was perfect.
Amy Stuart: Oh, that sounds amazing.
RC: It was. This is your first standalone book after your Still trilogy. What’s it like to wrap that up and start anew?
AS: I knew that post-Still, I wanted to do a one off. Series are very hard to write, because there’s so much interconnection between the books. This probably comes naturally to some writers, but to me it was very challenging. I was very ready to write a standalone book.
RC: Was it any easier?
AS: Not really, haha. You have to think instead about economy: Building your characters, moving your plot along in less time and space. I tried to embrace those tight perimeters and really double down on the sense of confinement, so A Death at the Party all takes place in one day, in one neighbourhood.
RC: Which brings me to Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which you quote at the book’s start. What’s the connection?
AS: I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time in my 20s and totally loved it, but I don’t know that I truly got it. Now that I’m older, I get the nostalgia – the sense of what could have been, the idea of choices and regret. The premise of that book and mine are exactly the same — a woman’s planning a party over one single day — but I started to imagine what it would be like as a thriller. What if Agatha Christie wrote Mrs. Dalloway? That excites me.
RC: I wonder if Mrs. Dalloway would even get published nowadays? I can imagine a publisher saying, “Where’s the action? Where’s the conflict?” Um, it’s internal.
AS: Totally. The whole book basically happens in Mrs. Dalloway’s mind. My character, Nadine, by the way, has the last name “Walsh.” Mr. Walsh is Clarissa Dalloway’s one-who-got-away. That’s a little nod.
RC: Imagine if Mrs. Dalloway was a killer, too! How do you start with your main character in mid-murder and still make me like her?
AS: I hear the word “unlikable” a lot, especially with women characters. I like to see women, warts and all, with big flaws. We accept a male character with tons of personality flaws and sins committed. We don’t mind that at all. So, I try to be careful not to limit myself and my characters just because they’re women. This whole book, in fact, is about why and how this one woman is so complicated.
RC: I like that, unlike so-called “unreliable” women narrators like The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl, your story doesn’t hinge on her not remembering or lying. Nadine’s totally honest, just maybe a murderer.
AS: Exactly. I used to be an English teacher and loved teaching dramatic irony. This book is a whydunit, not a whodunit, because the story isn’t just who did it, it’s who’s dead and why.