REVIEW: What Never Happened by Rachel Howzell Hall
Blurb: It’s murder in paradise as a woman uncovers a host of secrets off the rocky California coast in a gripping novel of suspense by New York Times bestselling author Rachel Howzell Hall.
Colette “Coco” Weber has relocated to her Catalina Island home, where, twenty years before, she was the sole survivor of a deadly home invasion. All Coco wants is to see her aunt Gwen, get as far away from her ex as possible, and get back to her craft—writing obituaries. Thankfully, her college best friend, Maddy, owns the local paper and has a job sure to keep Coco busy, considering the number of elderly folks who are dying on the island.
But as Coco learns more about these deaths, she quickly realizes that the circumstances surrounding them are remarkably similar…and not natural. Then Coco receives a sinister threat in the mail: her own obituary.
As Coco begins to draw connections between a serial killer’s crimes and her own family tragedy, she fears that the secrets on Catalina Island might be too deep to survive. Because whoever is watching her is hell-bent on finally putting her past to rest.
This was an Amazon First Reads book. The story starts in 2001, when teenaged Coco meanders home in the middle of the night after slipping out to drink with local kids. Coco, a recent import from Long Beach, wants to fit in but finds Catalina Island a challenge, particularly as her family comprises a fair percentage of the island’s miniscule Black population. Coco, queasy from mixing various liquors, walks in on a horrific scene at home: her father dead in a pool of blood in the kitchen. Coco discovers that her mother and brother have also been murdered, before narrowly escaping the killer by hiding in a closet.
The story then moves to March 2020 (yes, the beginning of the pandemic). Coco has come back to Catalina and claimed the house her family was supposed to move into all those years before. Or perhaps it’s better to say she’s reclaimed it from her elderly aunt Gwen, who has lived there for years and seems hazy on the ownership, among other things. The house is decrepit, but it’s a refuge for Coco from her life in Los Angeles, her estranged husband Micah and his demands that she return to him an expensive ring that she has absconded with. Coco, an obituary writer, has a job lined up with her friend Maddy, who runs the family newspaper on Catalina.
Coco hasn’t processed her family’s murders very well over the past two decades (which: understandable), despite being in therapy the entire time. Shortly after she arrives on Catalina, she finds out that the man who was arrested and convicted of the killings, Harper Hemphill, has been released based on the sudden reappearance of the murder weapon, a knife that contains DNA that doesn’t match Hemphill’s.
I had a lot of questions about this plot point. It seems to me that Hemphill’s release would have been something that Coco, who testified against him at the trial, would have been informed about through something other than word of mouth. I don’t know a lot about the law, but I would think there would have been a hearing to overturn the conviction and then the prosecutors would have decided not to retry Hemphill, and all of this would have happened with Coco being kept in the loop. But the way it plays out in the book it feels like an afterthought.
Further, I would think that Coco would have huge mental anguish knowing that the person who is responsible for slaughtering her whole family is still out there, and perhaps guilt that an apparently innocent man spent almost 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Other than occasionally fretting that Hemphill will come after her, Coco has little reaction to the news of his release; she is mildly upset that they will apparently never know who killed her family, but it doesn’t seem to bother her more than some of the other stressful stuff that’s going on in her life.
And she does have a lot going on: her complicated relationship with Gwen, a former housecleaner and inveterate thief; the aforementioned Micah, who texts increasingly angry messages to Coco regarding getting what he thinks is his; weird threatening messages and eventual vandalism of her home from an unknown enemy; and finally, the mysterious deaths of several older women on Catalina, a mystery that begins to absorb Coco as the book goes on.
Oh, also, the looming pandemic.
Old women dying is not exactly newsworthy, and at first it seems that the women in question all had ailments that reasonably explained their deaths. What is strange is the out of the way locations that the women are found in – a remote campground, for example. None of the women die at homes in the own beds, and no one seems to know why they may be at the locations they’re found at. Coco isn’t the only person in town who starts to suspect something untoward is happening.
At times it feels like there is too much going on in this book: the start of the pandemic, the central mystery (or mysteries?), Coco’s messy life and her complicated grief and the history of racism on Catalina and, you know, in general. Coco’s also trying fitfully to make contact with a book agent who wants her to write a memoir about her family’s murders, and she’s starting a romance with Noah, an almost too-good-to-be-true fellow journalist. Noah is handsome, rich and seems very into Coco, but she’s wary because wary is Coco’s default setting.
This book had a few things going for it: I liked Coco a lot and rooted for her. Catalina is an interesting setting and the history and present state of the island were woven into the story well. I was interested in what really happened to Coco’s family all those years ago.
But there were several issues for me as well. I liked Coco (again, a lot!), but her “voice” took a little getting used to – it’s sort of…breezy? Almost but not quite stream-of-consciousness? I did adjust to it but it took some time.
A bigger issue is the plotting and how believable the characters’ thoughts and actions were. First, the aforementioned issue with Coco and the exonerated suspect. Also, Coco vacillates between being very concerned about the threats and vandalism directed at her, and not showing what seemed to me to be basic common sense in response to them. The resolution to the mystery wasn’t hugely compelling, and it made less and less sense the more I thought about it.
Probable spoilery stuff:
Sometimes I’m not that bothered by “crazy ending made no sense” but it did bother me this time – maybe because it wasn’t entertainingly crazy enough? Overall, this book ended up being a C+ for me.