One by One by Ruth Ware
Originally published in 2021
Getting snowed in at a luxurious, rustic ski chalet high in the French Alps doesn’t sound like the worst problem in the world. Especially when there’s a breathtaking vista, a full-service chef and housekeeper, a cozy fire to keep you warm, and others to keep you company. Unless that company happens to be eight coworkers…each with something to gain, something to lose, and something to hide.
When the cofounder of Snoop, a trendy London-based tech start-up, organizes a weeklong trip for the team in the French Alps, it starts out as a corporate retreat like any other: presentations and strategy sessions broken up by mandatory bonding on the slopes. But as soon as one shareholder upends the agenda by pushing a lucrative but contentious buyout offer, tensions simmer and loyalties are tested. The storm brewing inside the chalet is no match for the one outside, however, and a devastating avalanche leaves the group cut off from all access to the outside world. Even worse, one Snooper hadn’t made it back from the slopes when the avalanche hit.
As each hour passes without any sign of rescue, panic mounts, the chalet grows colder, and the group dwindles further…one by one.
Like many I have recently found myself looking for a new social media outlet in anticipation that one of the ones I use already may soon not be around any more (or so frustrating to me that I may not want to use it). So far I have tried several different options from some that stick pretty closely to the sort of experience I get from Twitter to others that offer more unique experiences. Still, as open as I am to trying new things it is hard to imagine that I would ever be interested in something like Snoop, the trendy social app from Ruth Ware’s One by One which allows its users to spy on and share the music currently being played by their friends, family and celebrities they follow. Fortunately I was able to put those reservations to one side to focus on the mystery itself here.
Ware’s novel takes place in a luxurious ski lodge high in the French alps. The senior management behind the Snoop app have arrived to ski, plan and bond together but it soon turns out that several of those attending have another purpose in mind: they want to push the shareholders to accept a lucrative buyout offer that would make them all rich.
A bad-tempered meeting is followed by some time on the slopes but the weather is turning treacherous forcing the group to return to the chalet. Shortly after they get back an avalanche leaves the party snowed in and without power or cell reception. More worryingly, one of them never made it back at all. As the group waits to be rescued they find their numbers diminishing and before long they are wondering if there is a killer among them…
It is quite likely that at some point I will put together a ranked list of And Then There Were None pastiches. If and when that happens, there is a very good chance that this book will place quite highly on that list. Ware’s novel is quite purposeful in using the basic elements that make Christie’s story such a success but it avoids the trap of simply retelling that story with a different setting or characters. Instead it makes use of some of those conceptual elements while ultimately doing something a little bit different with them.
Exactly how Ware handles those elements differently here is hard to discuss without immediately clueing in anyone with a decent background in vintage crime fiction. In fact I caught onto where this was headed very early but while I guessed where this was heading, I was still able to really enjoy the journey to that ending.
After a very short excerpt from a news report describing the aftermath of the story, we jump back in time to the moment where the party first arrived. We then follow the events over those five days from the perspectives of two characters – Erin, one of the two staff members working at the chalet, and Liz, whose background and role in the story is initially a little mysterious.
I found both narrators interesting and felt that Ware used them in clever ways, playing on the idea that each character is on the outside of the party. Erin, as a staff member, is always present, observing what is happening yet at least up until the point that a body is found, she is barely acknowledged by the guests. Also, as she is far from trendy when it comes to her cellphone use, Ware uses her well to explore what exactly this app is, how it works and why it might have appeal for some users.
Liz on the other hand is more purposefully excluded. The reasons for her evident discomfort at being there are intriguing and while Ware hints pretty strongly at their nature early on, I found the exploration of her mentality and her status within the group to be quite compelling and felt that it made the character an interesting one to explore.
The other members of the skiing party are in contrast a little more colorfully drawn. With titles like Friends Czar, Head of Beans, and Head of Cool, the novel enjoys poking fun at trendy but shallow corporate cultures and effortful attempts to appear effortless. While these characters are not particularly sympathetic and often appear to be larger-than-life, I did appreciate that there are moments where we do at least understand them a little better and where the author uses these broad character types to explore themes of entitlement, class, and gender in the workplace.
While those themes are interesting, this is one of those stories that is really all about its atmosphere and plotting. Ware’s use of an avalanche to isolate her group of characters and create a closed circle is an effective one. It not only provides an effective boundary for keeping those characters together, it also adds some extra menace as the characters have to confront their increasingly inhospitable environs. Even a deluxe ski chalet becomes inhospitable without power or heat and Ware does a good job of reminding us of just how dire their plight may be throughout the book, particularly as we near the conclusion.
The discomfort caused by that isolation is amplified by these characters already being in a heightened state of tension with one another at the start of the novel. The matter of the buyout causes tensions to rise and characters to already be suspicious of the others in the party and so the reader must consider whether this is directly linked to the deaths or simply contributing to the quarrels among those stranded, adding to the interest of the premise.
Without a formal detective character, the investigation is a cooperative effort, at least in theory. In practice however the two chalet staff take the lead and show the most initiative in the search for the truth. This works pretty well, not only because Erin is learning everything about these characters for the first time but also because they have a clearer motive in trying to resolve the matter, even when it isn’t clear that anyone has been murdered at all. Given the considerable damage to the chalet neither would want the scandal of a guest (or two) dying to be still circulating while they are searching for a new position.
The least compelling part of that investigation is really in the immediate aftermath of the first disappearance. The choice to not have the characters immediately recognize the danger has strengths and weaknesses – on the positive side it means that most of the characters have their guard down for a while but it also gives those chapters a rather leisurely pacing. Thankfully the book speeds up once we have a verified corpse on our hands!
As for the solution, I think it works pretty well. I noted earlier that I worked out where this was going very, very early and so I wasn’t surprised but what I like about the ending is that it isn’t dependent purely on the shock factor. Rather what is interesting about the ending is how it ties into some of the broader themes addressed in the novel overall and some of the character notes struck in the reveal. Add in a rather thrilling action sequence and it makes for an entertaining conclusion.
Given that I had come to this bracing myself for disappointment, I was rather pleased that I found things to interest me here. While it clearly draws some pretty significant inspiration from Christie, I see that as a strength of the book and I appreciate that Ware doesn’t simply emulate the source material but does things to make it her own, both in terms of the structure and the themes addressed. It certainly increases my interest in trying some of the author’s other work, so don’t be too shocked if you see more Ware appear on this blog in the future!
The Verdict: I have read a lot of works inspired by And Then There Were None over the years – this is one of the most successful and entertaining. Worth a look.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book was only published in 2021 so there’s a pretty good chance that your local bookstore will have it in stock. If they don’t however they should be easily able to order you a copy. The ISBN number for the US paperback is 9781501188824.
Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can follow the link above to find a copy of the book at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.