Originally published in 2019
It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime…
Delighted by a surprise invitation, Miriam Macy sails to a luxurious private island off the coast of Mexico with six other strangers. Surrounded by miles of open water in the gloriously green Sea of Cortez, Miriam is soon shocked to discover that she and the rest of her companions have been brought to the remote island under false pretenses – and all seven strangers harbor a secret.
Danger lurks in the lush forest and in the halls and bedrooms of the lonely mansion. Sporadic cell phone coverage and miles of ocean keep the group trapped in paradise. And strange accidents stir suspicions, as one by one…
They all fall down.
A group of seven people, all apparent strangers, travel together to a remote island off the coast of Mexico. They go anticipating a pleasant time only to discover that they have been gathered under false pretenses. Each of the party has a dark secret known to its organizer and each is intended to die for their crimes.
As you may have guessed from the very brief summary above, They All Fall Down is a novel that reworks Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. This is acknowledged both in the use of a quotation from that novel that opens the book and also its dedication to an English professor who ‘didn’t want me to interpret precious English things as something darker and American’.
While I think it is hard to imagine anything darker than Christie’s original novel, I felt that the intention to rework what is one of the most famous suspense novels was an intriguing one. Would Hall adhere strictly to the structure and story beats of the original or would it diverge in any places? Would she use it to explore different themes or ideas?
In most respects Hall opts to stick quite close to Christie’s original novel. She does narrow the cast of characters from ten to seven – a move that makes sense as it means they get more space in the novel. It also enables Hall to replace the nursery rhyme with another object related to the seven deadly sins. While the idea of a series of murders being committed based on a set of sins is not unique, this provides a nice structure as we wonder which of the guests will be linked with which sin and about the nature of the crime they have committed.
The more significant changes are rooted in matters of character. It is here that we can see most clearly Hall’s intention to reimagine the story as a modern American one. This is not just reflected in the diverse backgrounds of the guests, both ethnically and socially, but also their aspirations, troubles and world views. With this in mind, we must then consider how altering the geographic and cultural backdrop to the novel alters it.
In discussing this I want to be mindful of preserving the surprises about the various characters’ backgrounds. For that reason I only intend to describe the narrator, Miriam Macy. This is not because she tells us her whole story from the start – her crime will be one of the last to be confessed – but because we know significantly more about her background from the start of the novel, even if it is an incomplete picture.
Miriam arrives at the island under the belief that she has come to compete on a new reality tv show. This is not only welcome because it suggests an end to some financial problems she is facing, having left her job as a marketing and communications for a luxury goods consignment store, it also allows her to escape her problems at home. We know that she has a strained relationship with her daughter Morgan who is upset about how Miriam handled a situation involved a racist bully in her ballet class. We also know that there has been some sort of incident outside her home that has led to her being questioned by the police and that she is considering pressing charges against someone. Add in her resentment of her ex-husband who occupies her home with his new lover and an addiction to prescription pain and anxiety meds and it is easy to understand why she is keen to make a fresh start.
Throughout the novel we get snippets of emails and text messages sent between Miriam and some of the people in her life back home. This not only helps us to build a picture of her life prior to arriving at the island and of the way she is perceived by those who know her, it reminds us of the characters’ isolation. Internet access is patchy, offering little opportunity for the characters to communicate with those off the island.
When the crimes of each of the other guests are revealed there is some aspect of them that is intended to surprise. In most cases this is the nature of the crime itself. The exception is that of Desi, a young widow, but even there we get to discover the precise circumstances of what she had done. Miriam’s story unfolds a little differently however as the reader will likely get a growing sense of what she did as we work towards the end of the novel. That thread of the story is by far the most interesting and successful in the novel, allowing for a complexity of character and relationships that I found to be more compelling than the main thriller plot.
By far the most interesting of the other characters to me was Wallace, a man who begins the novel claiming to already know all about Miriam. This creates an interesting dynamic of suspicion and irritation between the two characters that shifts subtly throughout the story in response to the various things that happen. One of the reasons I felt that way is that I found his past to be one of the most surprising of the party, rendering him a more complex character than he initially seemed.
That is not to say that I was uninterested in the other characters. I enjoyed the process of discovering their stories and the reasons each had come to the island. It is just inevitably though several of them feel somewhat flat in comparison with Miriam given the additional space her story is given to be explored and a few of the characters’ fates seemed somewhat rushed. Their deaths are, however, generally quite memorable and imaginative.
This brings me though to the biggest problem I had with the reimagining of the book – the matter of the motivation behind it all. In altering some aspects of the setup to Christie’s original, Hall strips it of its most powerful and perverse thematic element. For all that is gained in bringing in some new and important discussions of issues such as racism and policing, it loses some of its power in relation to the question of justice.
I was also a little disappointed when we learn the truth as to what had been happening on the island and who precisely was responsible for the deaths. While this is at least clued, allowing the reader to detect who the responsible party is, I found their motivations to be less convincing than those of the killer in And Then There Were None and so aspects of the conclusion left me rather unsatisfied.
This is disappointing because I think Miriam’s story becomes increasingly compelling as we near the end and we learn more about what exactly happened that has made Morgan hate her. The issues that are raised by her story are complex and I felt Hall explores them very thoughtfully. Unfortunately the decision to mimic the structure of the source material rather than elevating Miriam’s story ends up being a barrier to its success. It forces the inclusion of lesser secondary stories and plot beats that I felt did little to enhance the telling of her story while it is not different enough to keep the overall work from feeling a little derivative.
Still, They All Fall Down is engaging and, at times, quite exciting. While I think the use of And Then There Were None proved limiting, I would still consider it one of the better examples of a reworking of that novel. If nothing else, it has left me curious to try more of the author’s work – happily I already own a copy of These Toxic Things in my TBR pile so I expect I will return to her soon.
The Verdict: Inspired by Christie but I wished more liberties had been taken with its structure.
2 thoughts on “They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall”
I read quite a few contemporary closed-circle crime novels inspired by ‘And Then There Were None’, but found few of them entirely satisfying as mysteries. It seems to be that they function primarily as thrillers, despite tracing their roots back to Agatha Christie. I confess I struggled through this one—the characters were quite challenging to sojourn with. Would be curious to see what you make of ‘These Toxic Things’, before deciding whether or not to pick it up.
Well, one problem is that if they mimic the plot and twist closely there will be little opportunity to surprise the reader who has read the original. Here I think the architect of the plan stands out from the start for those familiar with Christie and so the only question is what mechanism are they using to pull it off.
Probably my favorite of the ATTWN-inspired novels I have read is Bertie and the Seven Bodies by Peter Lovesey. Generally though I have had the same reaction as you.
I do plan on getting to These Toxic Things at some point relatively soon. This just jumped ahead of it because of a book club.