Sin and Punishment: An Interview with Rachel Howzell Hall




RACHEL HOWZELL HALL has had two jobs for years: one is as a writer for health care organizations, such as City of Hope and (currently) Cedars-Sinai; the other as a prolific novelist. Her police procedurals center on LAPD homicide detective Elouise “Lou” Norton, a brilliant, slightly brittle black woman who is intimately familiar with many neighborhoods even the police don’t want to work. After four Lou Norton novels, Hall is doing something different: a classic locked-room mystery, They All Fall Down. I talked to Hall about the challenges of working in this new subgenre.

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KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: So this is your first standalone. You’ve built a great brand with your Lou Norton series. What was the impetus to try something different? (Please don’t tell us you’re getting tired of Lou!)

RACHEL HOWZELL HALL: I wanted to write this story years ago when I saw the movie Se7en. I also liked punishment stories like Dante’s Inferno and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. And I was a child of the church and so grew up listening to sermons and lessons focused on sin and the punishment. 

This type of story really didn’t fit into the Lou Norton universe — it would have been too much like Se7en if I had written a procedural. And the story wouldn’t leave me alone. So there I was, champing at the bit to write this “sin story” or die. I went for it — it was an opportunity to try something new.

I am not tired of Lou! I hope to write more books in the series but people need to buy the series for that to happen! Yes, like so many series, she’s been placed on hold — not a best seller. And that sucks. I’m hoping that she gets saved by Hollywood — a television series would definitely help. Yeah, I’d love to write Lou forever — but that would also allow me to write more one-offs like They All Fall Down.

Your heroine (and I’m using that term cautiously) Miriam Macy is the first person we meet in They All Fall Down, and she is our principal narrator. Why did you choose to have her interpret the things we’ll see as the book progresses? Is she a reliable narrator?

I wanted to use Miriam as the narrator because I am a black woman. I wanted this character to have a black woman’s sensibility and show how we see America and other people and also how we are treated and perceived. To some, she may not be a reliable narrator because of her place in the world, because of her place in her daughter’s and ex-husband’s lives. Every villain is a hero in her story, right? And I think that’s who we all are — villains and heroes. We celebrate and support those things that we love and understand, and diss and undercut those ideas we cannot comprehend. People have met different versions of me — and some have come away from those interactions nonplussed. No one is reliable. No one is completely lovable or likable. There is one person on this earth that wants you on an island in the middle of nowhere. And that’s one point I wanted to make with They All Fall Down, and with Miriam specifically.

Mimi is a difficult person. Complicated, to be sure, and perhaps a little unbalanced. What’s happening in her life to make her this way? And were you worried that readers would find her unlikable?

Miriam is a difficult person; she grew up black and female in America, and that makes her who she is. She is also a woman of a certain age who has been an attentive mother and faithful wife who is now being replaced by someone younger. She’s pissed off, and sometimes that makes you a little unbalanced. At her job, she uses her imagination to make something interesting. That tendency in that talent does not stop at her job. So that thing that makes her great also brings her downfall. I didn’t worry that readers would find her unlikable — that’s so subjective. There are characters I cannot stand, but that people love, so I go into it like that. I know that a lot of readers who have met Miriam see themselves in her, and for that reason they like her and they can identify with her. There’s a scene where Miriam is visiting her old home, and she sees what used to be her kitchen and it’s dirty. And she says something like: “If you gonna take somebody’s shit at least keep it clean.” I know women can definitely identify with that, and if it makes her unlikable then so be it.

And really: There are readers who didn’t like Lou, and Lou is totally likable. But she’s not for everyone. There were editors who didn’t see anything special about her, so …

Unlike your other books, which examine various aspects of Los Angeles, They All Fall Down is mostly set in one place in Mexico, a privately owned island on which a magnificent estate is perched. The estate itself becomes a character. Where did this place come from? Totally your imagination, or have you visited someplace like it?

Yes, this book was my first foray away from Los Angeles. I wanted a place that would offer privacy and I couldn’t murder people on Catalina Island! So I put it off the coast of Mexico on an island with a house as isolated as the house in Agatha Christie’s story. Like my Lou Norton stories, I sought to make the imaginary Mictlan Island a character — unknowable, welcoming, dangerous just like my Los Angeles. Even the house is named Artemis, who is the goddess of the hunt. And this is correct: what’s happening in They All Fall Down is akin to a hunt.

Were you influenced by some classic examples of the multiple-murder genre, like Agatha Christie’s?

I was influenced by Agatha Christie and, in particular, And Then There Were None. I wanted to take this very British story filled with unlikable people and turn it into an American story with unlikable people. I wanted an American story that discussed class, race, sex all of it. Since Dame Christie is the most famous author for locked-room mysteries, she’s who I chose to follow. Back in 1994, I saw Murder by Death for the first time and I knew that Neil Simon had based the film on some old story but I didn’t know what that story was. Once I found out, I knew that I wanted to write something like that.

This is one private island with seven guests on it, all with their own secrets. Did you plot this out ahead of time, or let the story take you where it would?

Yes, I did plot all of this ahead of time: I took each of the seven deadly sins and gave each character attributes that matched. I used Biblical and Greek references, which again, meant plotting out everything so that it would work. There were moments where I let the story lead, but I always kept everything close enough to pull in the reins.

The island visitors are all very different from each other; the reader will probably become more attached to some than to others. By design? How important is it for us to like at least some of these people?

I don’t know if it’s important for people to like some of the people. And in many ways, I like Desi and I like Wallace. But they’re on that island because they’re despicable. I was attached, of course, to Miriam. As far as likable, that’s subjective anyway — again, there are people who don’t like Lou Norton, and I luh me some Lou.

This isn’t escapism — you threw several contemporary issues into They All Fall Down: friendship and betrayal, the stress of parenthood, bullying, eating disorders, among others. Oh, and racial tension. Why did you think it important to include some of these things?

I wanted contemporary issues in this book because that’s just who I am — part of my stories always have to be relevant to my “right now,” and that’s what I’m thinking about as I create the characters. I write to address contemporary issues and, in this book specifically, I wanted to show that today’s sin is no different from the sin of Moses and the 10 Commandments.

And racial tension — I know that I can’t go on vacation without some weird race thing occurring at least once. We were in Hawaii a few years ago, and my husband was in the pool swimming and there were these two kids from Australia. I guess they had never seen a black man before and they thought that my husband’s skin was sunburnt! Strange, right? And we’ve been on vacation where people didn’t want to sit with us or clutched their purses close to their chests because they thought we were going to steal. So here we are, on vacation, still dealing with the same bullshit we were trying to leave.

What did you learn about human nature after writing this book?

I learned that humans will be awful to each other wherever they are. I learned that the monster isn’t always outside the house but living in the house with us. Just like what’s going on in the country today, I am not scared of what’s happening in some countries more than what’s going on in today’s America. I’m scared of the angry white guy with a gun.

Did writing this give you any urge to take a luxury vacation anytime soon?

Actually, yes! I need to take a luxury vacation right now! I’ll ignore the sinners and focus on a big book that I’ll read for pleasure and not for craft. And I shall drink all the rum punches.

What’s next — or is it too soon to ask?

I’m not sure what’s next. I’m doing a lot of pre-publication efforts for They All Fall Down, and I’m getting my daughter through her first year of high school. And I’m writing new stories and swapping stories for better stories. With all this, still working my full-time job at Cedars-Sinai. So nothing and everything is next.

Maybe even more Lou Norton?

I can only hope!

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Rachel Howzell Hall will appear in conversation with Steph Cha, LARB’s Noir Editor, at Chevaliers Books in Los Angeles on May 6, 2019, at 7 PM.

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Karen Grigsby Bates is a correspondent for NPR’s Code Switch team, based at NPR West in Culver City, where she covers race and identity issues. She is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book and has written two mystery novels.


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