Rachel Howzell Hall’s new standalone, They All Fall Down, launches on April 9. After four books featuring L.A. homicide detective Elouise “Lou” Norton, fans of Hall’s work are in for something new and different. I believe Hall’s work stands right alongside Michael Connelly (and I’m a Connelly fan).
My full review of They All Fall Down is on published by the New York Journal of Books. Suffice it to say that it’s a snazzy, sassy, sleek, and shiny update of the Agatha Christie classic, And Then There Were None.
Rachel Howzell Hall is a New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, including The Good Sister, co-written with James Patterson, and the critically-acclaimed Detective Elouise Norton series.
The third in series, Trail of Echoes, received a coveted Kirkus Star and was one of Kirkus Reviews ‘Books That Kept Us Up All Night.’ Land of Shadows and Skies of Ash (Forge) were included on the Los Angeles Times’ “Books to Read This Summer”, and the New York Times called Lou Norton “a formidable fighter—someone you want on your side.” Lou was also included in The Guardian’s Top 10 Female Detectives in Fiction.
A featured writer on NPR’s acclaimed ‘Crime in the City’ series and the National Endowment for the Arts weekly podcast, Rachel has also served as a mentor in AWP’s Writer to Writer Program and is currently on the board of directors of the Mystery Writers of America. She was named one of Apple iBooks’ “10 Authors to Read in 2017.” She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.
Rachel was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail (below).
Special note to Colorado writing community: Rachel is coming to Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs next month (May 2 – 5). Do not miss a chance to learn from (and maybe hang out with?) one of the best writers going.
Question: What was the spark for They All Fall Down? And what was the appeal of writing a locked-room—or in this case, locked-island—mystery? Was writing this a bigger challenge than mapping out a police procedural?
Rachel Howzell Hall: Yes, I wanted to write something different than the procedural—but I wanted to write this story long ago. I just didn’t know how to do it and writing the Lou Norton series gave me the chops I needed.
The story came to me when I saw the movie “Seven.” Not too long after that, I read And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I can point back even farther than that—as a kid growing up in church, I’d always been fascinated by sin and punishment, what happens to you when you do bad. So all of this, combined with my formal education as an English and American Literature major (reading Dante’s Inferno and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales), it just seemed… natural.
They All Fall Down was a challenge—mapping this out was different than a world where I’d lived all my life, and for the Norton series, through four books. I was starting over again and that scared me some.
Question: Did you study up on this particular, specific sub-genre? Have any favorite locked-room mysteries you’d care to recommend?
Rachel Howzell Hall: Once I set out to write this book, I did dedicate time to read—from Agatha Christie to Ruth Ware. The English seem to have this genre on lock-down (lol). My favorite, though, was And Then There Were None. I also read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Although that is considered horror, it is still locked-room and people staying in the house for different reasons, being haunted for different reasons.
Question: Without giving anything away, did you know when you started writing how it would end? Did you weigh other options—again, without any spoilers?
Rachel Howzell Hall: Because of Christie’s plot, I knew how the story had to end. But I wanted to tell this story in first-person—that’s kinda hard to do if you know the ending. So coming up with that ending took a moment—maybe during the third draft, I figured it out. That was one part of the story that I kept re-writing because it had to be perfect.
Question: Was there a specific case of a parent taunting and humiliating a teenager by social media that prompted you to set the moral compass for They All Fall Down?
Rachel Howzell Hall: I started writing They All Fall Down during those months when there were so many cases of parents getting in the middle of their children’s fights. Some parents were beating up kids, and bullying kids on-line. There were court cases with parents going to jail for bullying kids on-line.
I am a mother and my daughter, at 15, experienced racism early—preschool. While it broke my heart, it also awakened my worst tendencies and if I was Miriam, I would’ve struck out and hurt those kids and their parents. Knowing this, I wanted to translate that anger and sense of helplessness, combine it with unconditional love, and see what would happen.
The internet helped tremendously in my search for stories about parents being assholes. And there was one BIG story that I found but won’t mention because that may be a spoiler for my novel.
I wanted to modernize Christie’s story, and I wanted to make Miriam’s sin relevant. Really, every character is dealing with a contemporary issue—from bullying and police misconduct to race and sexuality. I wanted They All Fall Down to be more than just an entertaining read.
Question: I must say it looks like you had a great time developing the wide characters who are lured to the island. Yes? I guess there’s not much of a question here. But they all had to have one thing in common, right, that they could be tempted in the same way?
Rachel Howzell Hall: Yep, they could all be tempted because they were all sinners.
Hell, the seven on the island are us. We all have shortcomings and nothing we do is entirely altruistic. With They All Fall Down, I simply wanted to amplify what we all are go through—how extreme our actions can be. We are those people on reality TV—we just don’t have a camera following us to the bathroom all the time.
Question: Is there a “Mictlan Island” or something equivalent? Been there? Been to the area? How did you settle on the Sea of Cortez as the location? Did you have to endure some rugged research in that area?
Rachel Howzell Hall: I wanted somewhere close to Los Angeles but not Catalina Island (lol). She can’t do crazy things on Catalina Island.
I wanted a place that was exotic and at the same time, familiar. People travel to Mexico all the time to lose their minds, to drink on bar tops at Senor Frog. At the same time, I wanted some of the characters to fear the Other. You know: drug dealers with their pit bulls and Uzis. I wanted to show how our perception of the Dangerous Other can be ridiculous since we are the Dangerous Other. Just look at this country’s history and behold.
The seven on the island should not fear the drug dealers and their pit bulls—be fear the people sitting next to you at dinner, be scared of yourself.
Question: What’s next? What’s happening with Lou? Do you find yourself thinking in terms of more standalones?
Rachel Howzell Hall: Right now, I’m focusing on writing more standalones and reading good books. Lou is on hiatus but and I hope one day to bring her back to readers. I love her so much.
Rachel Howzell Hall’s website.