Seven strangers in a mansion on a luxurious private island. Odd accidents. One by one, they fall. Agatha Christie? Think again.
While THEY ALL FALL DOWN does pay homage to Christie’s most famous work, And Then There Were None, Rachel Howzell Hall’s upcoming release offers a modern take on the locked room mystery.
Miriam Macy, a 45-year-old black woman, accepts an offer to take part in a reality show, only to discover there is something sinister on Mictlan Island, located somewhere in the Sea of Cortez.
With a release date set for April 9, the novel has already earned advance praise from thriller luminaries like Attica Locke, Sara Paretsky, Meg Gardiner, Kristen Lepionka, and James Patterson.
The Big Thrill caught up with Hall—author of the critically acclaimed Lou Norton series— who says with THEY ALL FALL DOWN, she wanted to try something different.
“I remember watching Neil Simon’s Murder by Death. Learning that Simon used And Then There Were None as a foundation for the story made it more interesting, because of my familiarity with the seven deadly sins and Dante’s Inferno,” she says. “ I wanted to have fun with the characters, and I think what was most difficult was finding out ways to murder them according to their sin.
“I think a lot of my stories and stories written by other people of color are fresh because of our perspective, our experiences with race and class. We come to known tropes with a different understanding.”
The opening of THEY ALL FALL DOWN will grab the reader by the gut and not let go. Hall read other thrillers and suspense novels and noticed that some opened with the ending. “What I selected as the ending was gut-wrenching, but I wanted readers to know that I didn’t come here to play. Something bad was going to happen.”
She also can’t forget the image of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box. “Guess I should back up. The movie Se7en was unlike anything I’d seen—cops chasing a bad guy killing people inspired by the seven deadly sins,” Hall says. “Yes, that was an old trope, but David Fincher took it and twisted it. And then, punishing the young detective played by Brad Pitt for committing his own sin—and decapitating his wife and putting her head… That story stayed with me as I wrote this novel. That element of surprise and then, the final punch in the gut.”
THEY ALL FALL DOWN unfolded first as plot. “I grew up as a child of the church, so sin and punishment were very regular concepts for me,” Hall says. “As a literature major in college, I read Dante’s Inferno, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and the New Testament as literature. All of these lived in my brain, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie Se7en, read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and of course, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, that I wanted to do something similar, but with a character unlike those I’d read. I wanted a black woman to narrate, and I wanted to talk about race, sexuality, bullies, and black widows.”
Hall writes her first drafts in longhand and outlines to save time, because she also works a full time job. “I must know where I’m going so that I get there in time. I like having a roadmap, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t go in a different direction. Here I am creating the story, and I am as surprised as the reader.”
Early on, she decided on an island for a setting. “I did some research and found that there are islands scattered around the Sea of Cortez. Perfect! Mictlan is the underworld of Aztec mythology. Those who go there die, according to the myth.”
This story has no hero. The main character, Miriam Macy, is no Detective Lou Norton. She was made to be unlikable and to do unkind things.
“That was a big change for me,” Hall says. “Even though I gave Lou vulnerabilities, she was never evil or mean or worthy of being whisked away to an island and tortured. Another difference in my series, there was someone to solve the crime. In THEY ALL FALL DOWN, there is no one to stop what’s happening, and that’s probably the biggest difference in terms of structure.”
Miriam’s voice is unique and came instinctively to Hall. “As someone suffering from the sin of envy, Miriam had to be a braggart. She had to be jealous, self-absorbed, and perceptive. I watched reality television shows and listened to how the characters talk—because on these reality TV shows, they are characters. Also, Miriam is creative and her day job was to write aspirational copy for a secondhand designer clothes company like The RealReal. I delved into that world and studied how those catalog writers described clothes as experiences. Writing Miriam was fun, because she is pretty perceptive and smart, and in some ways, she is very much me.”
Hall writes not just to entertain, but to get some things off her chest. “Since I was writing about sin and punishment, I wanted to bring up issues we experience today. I also wanted my characters to represent America, to suffer from what’s happening now.”
Hall believes locked room mysteries remain popular “because we live them every day. They are driven by the fear of the other. This fear, especially in close settings, makes people want to do horrible things to each other,” she says. “I always thought about that episode of Twilight Zone, ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,’ where people in a tiny all-American neighborhood think they’re being invaded and start to suspect each other of awful things. The monsters do come—and the monsters are the neighbors.”
Rachel Howzell Hall writes the acclaimed Lou Norton series, including Land of Shadows, Skies of Ash, Trail of Echoes, and City of Saviors, and is also the co-author of The Good Sister with James Patterson, which was included in the New York Times bestseller The Family Lawyer. She is on the board of directors for Mystery Writers of America, and lives in Los Angeles.
To learn more about Rachel and her work, please visit her website.