One of the great joys of being a voracious reader is that moment when you find a new author whose work you absolutely love. One of the great drawbacks of being a voracious reader with a couple of jobs and all kinds of volunteer responsibilities is that you don’t have as much time to read as you would like. When I was a kid, I often wouldn’t do my assigned reading from class or my homework because well, I had a book to read goddamnit!
Strangely enough, that never went over well with either my parents or my teachers. Go figure.
A while back, I discovered the Lou Norton series by the amazing Rachel Howzell Hall. I read the first book in the series and thought, oh, wow, here’s someone I need to add to my must-read authors list (which is ridiculously lengthy), but the following books in the series went into the massive TBR pile (Paul sometimes jokes that it’s where “books go to collect dust and stare out sadly into the world, hoping to get picked up and read at long last”). But when she released her 2019 stand alone thriller, They All Fall Down, it went to the top of the pile and I tore through it in a very short time. It was amazing. I loved how she took Christie’s classic And Then There Were None (which was the title of the edition I read, so it will always be that to me) updated it, fit it into the modern world and made it diverse, and managed to also make it an edge-of-your-seat thriller with a despicable protagonist who did terrible things (or had done terrible things) but made her so real and human you couldn’t help but feel for her. It was definitely one of my favorite reads of that year.
And so, when selecting books to take with me to read during my travels this past week, I decided to take this year’s Hall release rather than last year’s And Now She’s Gone.
And not a bit sorry I did, either.
At that time of night, there was peace. No burbles from the water cooler. No ringing telephone or whooshing copiers. Just her hands scratching against paper envelopes, Just her sweet soprano harmonizing with Ariana Grande’s.
At twenty-three years old, and the most junior on the team, Allison Cagle stuffed envelopes as part of her job. Didn’t matter that she didn’t have a car. Didn’t matter than Jessica, her work best friend and regular ride home, has just called three minutes ago–little Conner had a fever and Jessica needed to drive him to the emergency room. (Watch your back! Don’t wanna stress out over you two!) Didn’t matter that Allison had no idea how the hell she was getting home now. None of that mattered because the annual awards luncheon was tomorrow afternoon and three hundred envelopes–containing drink tickets, table numbers, and for fifty VIP’s, parking validations–needed stuffing.
With smoky-blue eyes and a sleek SoulCycle body, Allison hadn’t anticipated this much office work. Filing, collating and stuffing killed her manicure. She preferred driving around Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, picking up in-kind donations from stores and bakeries. The Lakers, once. She’d expected more wooing donors and taking minutes at important meetings as she brushed blonde tendrils from her heart-shaped face. Flirty work, all in the name of charity and for kids caught between the foster care system and juvenile detention.
Allison Cagel is not the main character of this thriller–that would be Michaela “Mickie” Lambert, who has a fascinating job–she creates digital scrapbooks–memory books; a client pays a (large) fee and then Mickie takes objects and/or pictures, anything that might hold a memory for the client, and then puts it all together into a three-dimensional hologram. You go over the memory with Mickie, who records what you say, and she also does research into the items and/or places etc. so that you can summon the memory up and relive that moment forever.
Allison (spoiler) is about to become a victim, so while she does have a role in the story, we never see her beyond that opening chapter.
Mickie has just broken up with her boss–oh, yeah, landmines everywhere at that company–and moved back into an apartment behind her parents’ home, where she lived before she started dating the boss. That relationship is, frankly, toxic–she’s never met his family or many of his friends (the whole set-up just screams side piece!!!! to me), but he doesn’t want to let her go–nor does he want to make the changes necessary for the relationship to progress and grow. (I hated him almost from the get-go, seriously.) Her newest assignment–as she tries to negotiate the minefield of breaking up with a boss who doesn’t want to let go–is working for Nadia Denham, who runs a bizarre curio shop in a strip mall in a rapidly gentrifying area. Nadia has put aside her treasures for Mickie to record for her, as she is suffering from Alzheimer’s and wants to have reminders of her past to access once her brain can no longer do so. Mickie is taken with Nadia, and her strange shop of curios and collectibles (I kept thinking of Stephen King’s Needful Things), so when Nadia ostensibly commits suicide by wrapping a plastic bag around her head (and why, LAPD, would anyone commit suicide in that way?) Mickie is shaken up, and begins to suspect that maybe, just maybe, Nadia didn’t kill herself after all.
But who would have wanted the harmless old lady dead? Her adoptive daughter, Riley, who is clearly emotionally unstable and works in the shop with her? The greedy developer who wants to tear up the strip mall and gentrify it? The strange homeless man in the parking lot who scares the crap out of Mickie? Her son, with his bankruptcies and financial troubles–and fine body that Mickie can’t help but desire? And someone is stalking Mickie as well–but why? Is it the Dashing Devil serial killer, who, after a long absence, has started killing again? Is her boss the one doing the stalking?
Or is someone even closer to home?
And how is this somehow all connected?
This book is a non-stop thrill ride, and Mickie is one of the most compelling heroines I’ve come across in recent memory. Loved her, cared about her, cared about her family and circle of friends, and couldn’t stop reading because I cared so much about her–and there are some moments of suspense so intense I simply could not stop reading. Hall manages to juggle all these characters, all of these plots and subplots, with such expertise that the reader is never confused, or has to page back to figure out what’s going on, or who someone is. The way the book continues to build–and the darker it becomes the further you get into it–should be studied by anyone who wants to write suspense.
You can never go wrong with Rachel Howzell Hall, and this book is just fantastic.