Reviewed by Nicholas Havey
City Under One Roof
by Iris Yamashita
February 2023, Hardcover, 304 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0593336670
The townspeople of Whittier, Alaska live as a community under one roof. Literally. In a 2015 NPR profile of the town, its residents described their sprawling home – Begich Towers – as having almost everything they need. It’s an interesting concept for a community but an even more interesting concept for a book. Enter Iris Yamashita’s debut novel, City Under One Roof, a claustrophobic and engaging take on the locked room mystery.
Yamashita, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, offers the reader a cinematic opening: several body parts have been found on the isolated beach of Point Mettier, Alaska (Yamashita’s fictionalized Whittier) by pot smoking teens. The small community, separated from the rest of civilization by a miles-long mountain tunnel that closes for inclement weather like the severe winter storm that traps everyone there, is tight-knit and the news of a potential homicide comes as a shock. Yamashita’s writing is brisk and feels very written for the screen, with each scene progressing at a rapid clip. Characters are developed quickly and motives rapidly unfurl.
We are immediately introduced to Amy and Spence, teenagers living in the Davidson Condos (the Dave-Co), who have a penchant for exploring the abandoned military base that prompted the construction of Point Mettier in the first place. Amy and her mother run the town’s (horrible, according to Amy) Chinese restaurant and provide delivery, a smart plot device that allows Amy to meddle, and Spence’s mother is one of the few teachers at the school, marking both of them as more than just regular townspeople. The rest of the colorful cast includes a flirtatious police officer; an icy police chief; a retired Japanese singer who frequents the town’s only bar and hosts somewhat mandatory birthday parties for herself in her creepy, doll-strewn apartment; a potential felon who just happens to manage the building’s small bed and breakfast; and a woman who wears a different beret each day, has a pet moose, and lives in fear of returning to ‘the Institute’. None of this cast are pleased that there is an outsider investigating a murder in their small town and Yamashita’s use of multiple points of view (Cara, our detective; Amy, our teenager; and Lonnie, our kook) ensures that the tension is thick enough to cut with a knife.
Inevitably, the rest of the body is found and Cara connects the dots just in time for her primary suspect to go missing. With a weather-driven deadline to solve the case and an increasing sense that the people of Point Mettier are hiding something, collectively, the stakes feel high. This is a closed-room mystery with a boiling point.
As the cast of characters is explored in greater depth, Yamashita offers up just enough secrets to keep the reader guessing but provides enough detail to ensure her plot is plausible. Point Mettier is, after all, a place where people go to get away from their (past) lives, including a history of bank robbery, a penchant for behavior that might result in a less than temporary psychiatric hold, and gang activity. While a lot of this feels like the subplots a writer’s room might dream up, take somewhere, and not finish due to budget constraints, a showrunner who wants to go in another direction, or simple reconsideration (take, for instance, the wildly unnecessary romantic subplot between Cara and one of the town’s police officers or a completely inconsequential reveal that a character’s history is not exactly what they thought it was), most of it works and the crime is solved.
City Under One Roof is a more than competent debut but it is not without flaw. Much of the color Yamashita paints her cast with is pretty and engaging but ultimately disconnected from the narrative of the story and the strengths that come from the author’s background as a screenwriter (pacing, visual clarity, impactful setting and dialogue) also bring weaknesses (unfinished threads, characters who aren’t developed as a result of that quick pacing, predictability) that could have been subverted within the structure of a novel. Further, the boogiemen are indigenous Alaskans who live in a nearby town and act, at least within the narrative, as a roving band of marauders. The employment of a harmful stereotype felt derivative and, like a horrible meal at a chain restaurant in an otherwise picturesque town, left a bad taste in my mouth on an otherwise pleasant weekend vacation. I won’t be back to Point Mettier, but I’d be willing to give its sister communities a visit. And plan to: Yamashita’s Village in the Dark, a follow-up novel with Cara at its center, is out February 23, 2024.
About the reviewer: Nicholas Havey is Director of Institutional Research at the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, a thriller and mystery writer, and a lover of all fiction. His work has appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books, Lambda Literary, and a number of peer-reviewed journals.