Ruth Ware’s ingenious ‘One by One’ pays homage to Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’

Except, in this rare instance, that comparison, tired as it may be, is fitting. Not only do Ware’s novels wink at Christie in a saucy way, but Ware herself is turning out to be as ingenious and indefatigable as the Queen of Crime. Over the past five years, Ware has produced five suspense novels, each one markedly different from its predecessor and almost all of them weighing in from really good — “The Woman in Cabin 10” — to spectacular — “The Death of Mrs. Westaway.” (The weak link is “The Lying Game.” Avoid any mystery whose opening scene involves a dog digging up a human bone.)

Ware’s latest is titled “One by One,” and it’s the most brazenly Christie-ish of all her novels, directly taking inspiration from “Ten Little Indians,” which had an even more racially offensive title when it was originally published in England in 1939. A year later, the novel was published in America as “And Then There Were None.” In Christie’s novel, a group of strangers is lured to an isolated house on an island, where, in short order, a psycho prunes the guest list. Ware’s homage also owes something to the feeble 1965 film of Christie’s novel (itself a remake of a 1945 film) where, instead of an island, the guests are trapped in a snowbound mountain resort. In Ware’s tale, the characters — some workmates, others strangers — are summoned to a private retreat in the French Alps where avalanches tremble atop every surrounding mountain peak and the guests are picked off, one by one.

It’s such a simple premise for a suspense tale; the best ones usually are. Christie, however, always said that the plot of “And Then There Were None” gave her the most trouble of any of her novels. Ware’s story follows the snow tracks of Dame Agatha’s classic but cunningly swerves off-road at crucial moments with the aid of techie updates.

The opening of “One by One” consists of the text of a (fictional) BBC News story about twin tragedies that have just occurred in the exclusive French ski resort of St. Antoine: The first catastrophe is an avalanche that killed six people; the second is the murder of four Britons in a ski chalet that had been cut off from the outside world by the aforementioned avalanche. All of the guests who’d checked in to that chalet five days earlier worked at Snoop, company that makes a music that app that proudly advertises itself as “Voyeurism for your ears.” Snoop’s appeal is that it offers users the experience of listening to whatever music other subscribers, including celebrities like, say, Jay-Z or Lady Gaga, are listening to in real time. The Snoop workmates who gathered for this work retreat are as hip as their product. For instance, Tiger-Blue Esposito (certainly one of the most inspired names for a character) is identified on the company’s website not as the publicist, but as the “head of cool.”

As we readers quickly learn, the motivation for this retreat isn’t simply employee bonding over winter sports and hot toddies. Snoop has become such a sensation that a stupendous buyout offer is on the table. One of Snoop’s co-founders wants to take the money and run; the other is adamantly against the buyout. The votes of other employees who own shares have broken evenly on both sides. The deciding vote turns out to be a former low-level employee who was paid in a couple of shares when the company was a mere start-up. Liz is a fade-into-the-woodwork type of gal, and because she abruptly quit the company some time ago, she’s deeply uneasy about being summoned back into the Snoop fold during this combative retreat. It turns out she — and everyone else staying at what will be dubbed a “house of horror” — has good reason to feel uneasy.

Liz is one of two first-person narrators of “One by One,” alternating chapters with Erin, who works as the host of the chalet. Both young women turn out to be hiding nasty secrets behind their mild exteriors. As in Christie’s mysteries, part of the great pleasure of reading “One by One” lies in rereading key passages and realizing how dim one was (as a reader) the first time round. Much of the crucial information is out in the open, right there on the page in dialogue and description, but Ware expertly scatters red herrings galore so that even the most alert reader becomes diverted into false deductions and dead ends.

And, then, there are those dead ends the characters fatally enter: a ski trail that veers off into thin air, a locked room that transforms into mausoleum. As the body count mounts, so too do Ware’s multitudinous methods of doing away with the victims. Like Christie, Ware prefers to have her killings transpire “offstage,” making “One by One” that increasingly rare literary achievement: a non-grisly thriller. The final section, where the last intended victim is locked in a ghastly battle of wits and endurance with the unmasked killer, has to be one of the most ingeniously extended plot climaxes in the suspense canon. I don’t know how Ruth Ware manages to keep up her pace of writing such fine and distinctive suspense novels every year (even Christie needed to take a break every so often); but, on behalf of suspense lovers everywhere, may I say that I’m grateful she has turned out to be a marathoner, rather than a sprinter.

Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.

One by One

Gallery/Scout. 384 pp. $27.99

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