Murder on the Mountain

Author: Amy McCulloch

Cecily Wong is a journalist famous for failure, and this is her last chance at redemption. Her ex-boyfriend, also a journalist, was always seeking the greatest thrill. The biggest mountain, the hardest challenge. He is the one who told her about the famous mountaineer, Charles McVeigh, who is climbing eight mountains over eight thousand feet each without supplemental oxygen, without the help of ropes, all in one year. Charles is about to finish his own self-imposed challenge on the last, easiest mountain: Manaslu. Even beginners can tackle this mountain.

Now, Cecily is on that mountain with the famous man. She lost face when she wrote about her failure to climb a simple mountain, when she told the world that her boyfriend’s golden story of her heroism was a sham. This unlikely article made Charles like her. It made him decide that she was the journalist to go with his team and document his last mountain and greatest victory. It’s her second chance, and she’s lost everything for it, including her jealous boyfriend. But can she really make it? Can she redeem her career, her faith in herself? When bodies start showing up on the mountain, the question gets darker. Can she survive? Can she figure out who is whistling in the night, who is slowly killing the members of her group, who is jamming the signals and leaving them all stranded?

Breathless is your usual exotic thriller. We have a hapless main character with a secret shame and loads of self-doubt, a near impossible journey with lots of cool technical gear, an enigmatic assortment of side characters with rage issues, isolation plus ice, and, of course, internal strife. Charles might climb away from the group, clinging to Manaslu like a mountain goat, but he does need his retinue to prove and witness his prowess, and everyone has a secret reason for being there. Cecily is seeking redemption and a prize-winning article – one that she can only write if she makes the summit with Charles. Then there is a snazzy influencer, famous for her topless Instagram post and glamorous mountaineering; there’s a tech mogul guy trying out his latest gadgets (and sneaking in alcohol), an entire gang of seemingly helpful Sherpas, and Doug, the team leader with a major rage problem and a troubled past. Throw these people together, alongside some of the other groups that come and go up the mountain, and you have personality clashes and suspicions. They all have reasons for being on this quest, and none of them are as simple or innocent as they seem. Add to this a friend from the past with a vendetta, a sexy Russian woman seeking an affair, a troubled man seeking to honor a friend he said was murdered on Everest, and a rival camp, and you have plenty of potential serial killers taking advantage of the wild terrain and isolation to make the perfect killing grounds.

Image by Simon from Pixabay

I was most looking forward, oddly, to the mountaineering side of the story. I’ve recently been on a kick, reading about men and women who push their bodies to the extreme. As an armchair adventurer, I was looking forward to the mix of mountaineering technicality with the requisite killing, suspicion, and shenanigans. While author Amy McCulloch is a mountaineer, the details never felt authentic to me. This was largely because Cecily was painted as such an amateur – a fellow armchair enthusiast who tried out her first hike one day and failed and is now on one of the world’s tallest mountains – that I couldn’t believe her ability to keep up, no matter how poorly. Mind you, Cecily here does have some experience and has put some study into it, but her ability to survive and go up the mountain and sheer cliff faces wasn’t believable to me. It made Manasul look too easy, despite the harrowing description of crevasses and twisting ropes.

The conclusion follows the usual thriller motif to tantalizing effect. We think we know the villain, only to be proven wrong time and time again. It’s well done and enjoyable, especially as the story goes from one of sneaking paranoia to a survival epic and an admittedly unlikely escape down the mountain. The ending continues the serpentine “gotcha” twists, finally landing on one that sticks nicely. It’s not the most epic ending ever, but it certainly is a satisfying one that leaves us thinking about the book and the characters and the horrifying possibilities long after the final page closes.

All in all, this was a solid thriller with a bit of mountain flavor. The characters are not exceptionally deep, but they don’t need to be. It’s all about the drama, the suspicion, the isolation, and someone in the wilderness who uses the freedom of the mountain to murder. Recommended.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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