One Little Secret by Cate Holahan
My Rating: 2.5/5 TARDISes
Date Published: July 9th, 2019
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Pages: 320 pages
Synopsis: Everyone has a secret. For some, it’s worth dying to protect. For others, it’s worth killing.
The glass beach house was supposed to be the getaway that Susan needed. Eager to help her transplanted family set down roots in their new town – and desperate for some kid-free conversation – she invites her new neighbors to join in on a week-long sublet with her and her workaholic husband.
Over the course of the first evening, liquor loosens inhibitions and lips. The three couples begin picking up on the others’ marital tensions and work frustrations, as well as revealing their own. But someone says too much. And the next morning one of the women is discovered dead on the private beach.
Town detective Gabby Watkins must figure out who permanently silenced the deceased. As she investigates, she learns that everyone in the glass house was hiding something that could tie them to the murder, and that the biggest secrets of all are often in plain sight for anyone willing to look.
A taut, locked room mystery with an unforgettable cast of characters, One Little Secret promises to keep readers eyes glued to the pages and debating the blinders that we all put on in the service of politeness.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review*
This is a spoiler-free review.
Going in, this book seemed like it would be right up my alley in terms of the types of mystery/thriller novels I enjoy. So I am disappointed to say that I came out with rather mixed feelings about it—it was just a bit underwhelming for me. On the one hand, this story is packed with a few too many clichés and there are a number of elements of the plot that could have been executed better. On the other hand, it is a fast and fairly entertaining read that still completely held my attention all the way through. All this being said, I have come to the conclusion that the majority of my issues with the narrative are simply connected to my personal taste.
The characters that make up the intriguing cast of this story are definitely not particularly likable people. The tension in the house is incredibly palpable with the constant stilted interactions, nasty thoughts, and full-blown arguments. And they will immediately have you questioning why in the world they would ever agree to go on vacation together for a week in the first place. Despite this, there are still redeemable qualities in some of them and not everyone is quite as bad as they seem in the beginning.
Though my mixed feelings really apply to every aspect of this novel, I thought the characterization was decent. I found most of the characters to be realistic and thought they had a good amount of dimension. The majority of them evolved—along with my opinion of them—as the story progressed and as more of their backgrounds were revealed. Many of them are dislikable, but in a very purposeful way—you are meant to be suspicious of them for a while, and almost all of them do end up acting poorly at some point. I did feel like this only added to their believability. There are a couple characters—only one main one—who are quite one dimensional and somewhat unrealistic, but this is avoided for the most part.
Quite honestly, this novel is absolutely full of adult mystery novel clichés. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Commonly used elements can still make for a great story and I do not think that this is an entirely negative thing when it comes to this one. I do think it is a bit overdone. The topics used to create drama between the couples and in the plot of the novel overall are well written for what they are. There are scenes of domestic abuse that are so realistically portrayed they are quite intense and hard to read. The themes of betrayal are very vivid and the moments of insecurity are extremely relatable. All in all, Holahan truly brings every theme dealt with in this novel to life in a multi-dimensional way.
The issue here—and it is certainly more related to personal preference than an actual problem with the story—is that these commonly used plot points became too overwhelming. Trying to crowd all of them in caused the originality of the narrative to take a significant hit. Every unique moment is overshadowed by tropes like infidelity, abuse, alcoholism, and petty arguments. Though these topics are common in many novels and add a good deal of tension and drama, there needs to be more substance. In this novel, it felt like one was being piled onto the next just for the sake of raising more issues for the couples rather than actually building or progressing the plot.
The most major element of the novel that I feel could have been executed better is the creation of suspicion in the reader’s mind. A mystery novel should allow the reader to form their own thoughts about and distrust in the possible culprits by subtly directing their attention to potential motives. While Holahan does do that in some ways, it lacks a lot of that subtlety and ends up coming across as a bit forced. Though every person in the house is clearly going to be a suspect, there are constant and far too obvious reminders of why they could be guilty. It becomes very over-the-top and detracts from the suspense of the plot.
I definitely think Holahan could have left a little room for the reader to come to their own conclusions about each of the characters’ potential for being the killer. Developing them more naturally and relying solely on laying out personalities and backstories with the progression of the plot would have allowed for this. It is easy to get a clear picture of each character and form one’s own opinion based on the way she does these things over the course of the novel. However, too often the narrative strays toward a less delicate way of weaving in distrust of the characters, instead, pointing the finger quite plainly from one person to the next.
Another element of the novel I feel could have been executed better is the narrowing down of suspects over the course of the story. As the narrative progresses, each of the potential killers is cleared one by one until there are only two left in the end. This approach, for me, sort of killed the suspense. It would have kept me more on the edge of my seat if Holahan had left a few more options in there. This, though, is undeniably something that did not work for me personally and could easily be perfectly fine for a different reader. As it stands, I found the ending to be extremely predictable and it fell rather flat. I have to say, the choice of the killer upset me a bit for a number of reasons as well.
The writing itself is a strong point in this book. I really like Holahan’s writing style—it flows very naturally and is easy to get into. Her descriptions are very vivid and help to pull the reader into the story. She sets the scene for all the mystery and deception well, forming an environment that reflects the tone and emotion of each scene. The narrative never lacks realism, helping to immerse the reader and connect them with the setting and characters.
Now, after all that I have said, it may seem like this reading experience was a primarily negative one, but that is not entirely true. There were a lot of issues I personally had with it but, as I said before, I doubt they would apply to everyone. Personal taste was a big factor here. Also, I was very engaged in the story. I did not absolutely love it but it held my attention from beginning to end and I was truly interested in finding out how everything would resolve. Despite the predictability of many plot points, there were still enough surprises to keep me guessing. Overall, this is a novel that I would recommend giving a try. I know it is something that plenty of readers will find enjoyment in.
Cate Holahan is the USA Today Bestselling author of The Widower’s Wife, Lies She Told, and Dark Turns, all published by Crooked Lane Books. The Widower’s Wife was named to Kirkus’ best books of 2016. An award-winning journalist and former television producer, she has written for BusinessWeek, The Boston Globe, and The Record newspaper. Her short fiction won first place in the 19th annual Calliope competition, a magazine published by the writer’s group of American Mensa. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, ages 7 and 5, and dog Westley. She graduated from Princeton University in 2002.