“The Last Resort” by Marissa Stapley. Toronto: Graydon House Books, copyright 2019, 361 pages, $16 paperback and $16 Kindle.
Two troubled couples are among a score of pairs who arrive at the Harmony retreat to participate in a group counseling vacation run by Dr. Miles Markell, his wife Grace, and their clinical assistant Ruth. The event takes place on the Mexican Riviera and “The Last Resort” is a double entendre (dual meaning) title. It refers to both the venue itself and to its purpose as a last-ditch effort to save the failing marriages of wealthy couples.
During their planned two-week stay, Dr. Markell disappears in the midst of a devastating hurricane for which the resort was woefully unprepared. It transpires that the charismatic doctor had tried to isolate his guests from social media and outside communications so effectively that they were unaware a major weather event was expected until it is too late to evacuate.
The guests shelter in place and survive the storm, but Dr. Markell is presumed dead. Guests report an altercation during the storm, no corpse is found, and details of Markell’s narcissistic idiosyncrasies surface. The patients make several sardonic references to “drinking the Kool-Aid”, an historical nod to the mass suicide of almost 900 people in the 1970s in South America by drinking poisoned beverage at the behest of cult leader Jim Jones.
The reader is left trying to decipher a closed-community murder with only a handful of characters after the fashion of the late Agatha Christie. Everyone has motive because Dr. Markell had harmed each in some way—the manipulated child-bride wife, the under-appreciated assistant, the pretty female patients targeted with unwanted advances, the addicted guests separated from their intoxicant of choice, and everyone under secret surveillance in their rooms so that the doctor could appear “all-knowing”.
Celebrity Dr. Markell is not the paragon he at first appears and the narrative becomes tense as it’s interspersed with 3 or 4 question and answer sessions that mimic post-murder psychological counseling with the purported killer, but that don’t reveal that person’s identity.
Canadian journalist Marissa Stapley has given the deserted island mystery an edgy new immediacy that transcends the works of Agatha Christie and television episodes of “Death in Paradise”. Her evil megalomaniac marriage counselor who spouts advice while resentment builds in his own relationships makes for a better than average whodunit. As one of the counselors in “The Last Resort” asserts, “The average person knows 13 secrets, 5 of which have never been told.” This novel is about the spilling of secrets and the readers is along for the ride.
Lisa Kobrin is the Reference Manager and Genealogy Librarian at the May Memorial Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (336) 229-3588.