One By One
Despite my being a thriller/suspense-sans-romance newbie, Ruth Ware’s name is familiar to me – her books are prominently displayed by my local bookseller, and we’ve given two of her books DIKs. So when I saw she had a new book out for review I snapped it up. One by One is a contemporary twist on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and I had high hopes for it. Unfortunately, while the set-up hooked me right away, the execution is disappointing. I liked it, but I wasn’t thrilled. (*wink, wink*).
Before this story begins, Ware prefaces the book with two items. The first is an About Us page for a company called Snoop. Despite the seven biographies and modern twists on traditional job titles (head of beans; chief nerd; friends czar; head of cool), readers are left to guess at what Snoop does. But since every bio includes a Listening to field, it seems likely Snoop has something to do with music. The second – possibly related? – item is a BBC news story headlined 4 BRITONS DEAD IN SKI RESORT TRAGEDY. The article references two tragedies at the French ski resort of St. Antoine: an avalanche that killed six, and the discovery of a remote ski chalet – a house of horror – where investigators found four Britons dead and two more with injuries requiring hospitalizations.
One by One unfolds after nine employees (and one former employee) of Snoop (a popular music streaming app that allows listeners to ‘snoop’ on what other snoopers are listening to), arrive at a remote ski chalet in France for a corporate retreat. While a powerful snow storm looms in the distance, it’s clear a storm of a different sort is brewing within the staffers. A buyer has made an offer to purchase Snoop and the potential profit is massive; unfortunately, the group that holds voting shares is split on whether to accept the offer. Co-founder Eva (30%) and bean counter Rik (19%) are ready to sell; co-founder Topher (30%) and his best friend and chief nerd Elliot (19%) aren’t; the swing vote belongs to Liz, a former employee who owns 2% of the voting shares. Liz is a wild card; she never felt like she belonged when she worked there – never cool or hip enough, awkward, always on the outside looking in – and as the story gets underway, it’s clear not much has changed.
Arriving at the chalet the group is greeted by Erin, their hostess, and Danny, the chef. Erin and Danny – friends and co-workers – sense the tension, but do their best to put the group at ease. Although it’s clear several of the guests have already had more than a few drinks en route, Erin is quick to offer cocktails and Danny’s appetizers as she tries to match faces to the names on her guest list. Her rapid head-count reveals a problem – one extra person. After Erin approaches Eva and Topher and explains the problem, Topher’s PA admits he forgot Liz in the guest count. Erin doesn’t have another single room available in the chalet, but a furious Eva and tipsy Topher are adamant Liz has her own room. Erin calms them by suggesting some of the other employees pair up, and makes the adjustment. Liz, from her vantage point on the periphery, notices something is wrong. By the furtive looks directed her way, she assumes the problem has something to do with her.
One by One suffers from a few problems right from the start. Told exclusively via chapters that alternate between Erin’s and Liz’s perspectives, we never really get to know the secondary characters. Liz, our ‘insider’, is clearly unreliable from the start – she’s paranoid, defensive, scared and strange – and I didn’t trust her. Erin, an outsider, is similarly unreliable despite her quick assessment of the group – she doesn’t know any of these people, and her interactions with everyone except Danny are limited by her job. When the group sets out to ski the following morning, Erin cautions them to stay on established trails because the danger of triggering an avalanche skiing off piste is high, and urges them to keep their first outing short because the weather is worsening. Based on the acrimony of the group, the forbidding skies, the challenging terrain and varied ability levels (from advanced to novice skiers), it comes as no surprise that the group fractures almost from the start. When Topher challenges them to stay out a bit longer, Liz loses her temper and refuses. She returns to the chalet, and the other skiers eventually make their way back, too – but one person is missing. Fear and accusations of foul play arise almost immediately, but then an avalanche nearly buries the chalet and cuts them off from the outside world.
Secluded, snowed in with no way to summon help (phone lines are down and cell phone reception is spotty), no power, conditions outside too treacherous to leave, and stuck with a potential killer in their midst, the group turns on each other. The set-up works; unfortunately, despite the atmospheric and creepy setting, the limited PoV forces readers to guess who these people really are, and why – aside from the buy-out offer – they might want to kill each other. And then another guest is found dead. Liz’s chapters become even more chaotic and fearful – it’s like she’s suffering from a mental breakdown – while Erin – desperate to stay alive – keeps her head and tries to stay a step ahead of the killer.
Ware gets the pacing right. From the moment the skier goes missing, there’s a frantic, desperate feel to the story. She ramps up the tension with each new dead body (there are three in as many days), and there’s a palpable sense of dread as those remaining wonder who might be next. Unfortunately, we don’t really know any of these people, so I never formed an emotional attachment to any of them. I was still invested in identifying the killer, but once I knew who I wanted to know why – and this was the biggest let down of all. Ware relies on surprise character revelations and convenient plot devices to explain the murder spree. Look, I like a killer surprise (ha!), but when the author deliberately games the story so there’s no possible way readers can guess the villain, it isn’t clever. Or fair. A climatic, breathless ski chase sequence near the end nearly redeems the novel, but loose editing (the killer breaks their collarbone in a crash, gets up and keeps skiing as if nothing happened), and an abrupt, awkward ending spoils the thrill.
Aside from my complaints about the killer and the underdeveloped cast, One by One suffers from one too many plot holes, and an ending that never seems to end. Things happen in the last third that we’re told couldn’t happen earlier in the story, people disappear and no one really seems to care, the story goes on too long, and our narrators never really grew on me. Although Ware cleverly blurs the line between our traditional sense of good vs. evil, I just wasn’t invested enough in these characters enough to care overmuch.
One by One boasts a clever set-up, but the execution failed to thrill this reader. Recommended with reservations.