by Miriam R. Kramer
While not generally a horror aficionado, I love suspense and will buy certain author’s sight unseen and reviews unread if they promise an exciting ride, particularly around Halloween. Recently I perused two new examples: The Maidens, by Alex Michaelides; When No One Is Watching, by Alyssa Cole.
Michaelides’s first book, The Silent Patient, bolted out of the gate to a place on multiple bestseller lists. It had some unique plot twists that gave it a leg up with the public. Unfortunately, I did not find that to be the case with his sophomore effort, The Maidens. The plot felt forced, and the author pointed at one character as the prospective murderer so often that anyone who has ever read a whodunnit would suspect that he is not the guilty party.
The main character, Mariana Andros, is a group therapist mourning her husband, who died in an accident in Greece. Her niece, Zoe, who is at Cambridge University, is stunned by the death of a friend, Tara, a member of a group of powerful, brilliant undergraduate women called the Maidens, acolytes of a charismatic, menacing professor of Greek mythology and drama and called Edward Fosca. Mariana decides to go to Cambridge and bring her therapeutic skills to bear on the group dynamics surrounding the Maidens as one after another succumbs to a killer.
I would not recommend this mythology-tinged book to anyone looking to be held in thrall. The writing is clunky, the characters are two-dimensional, and the unexpected denouement is entirely unconvincing. Give this one a miss.
When No One Is Watching, by Alyssa Cole, is more than a mystery—it’s a fictional horror story and thriller about urban development, communities displaced by gentrification, social justice, African-American history, and racial politics. The main character, Sydney Green, is an African-American woman who has grown up on the fictional Gifford Place, an area with brownstone buildings reminiscent of traditional working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
Sydney is struggling to keep her mother’s brownstone as her Black neighbors and friends are being forced out by rising costs along with other, more insidious reasons. These neighbors start to disappear in mysterious ways or get arrested for false reasons under strange circumstances as whiter, middle-class residents move into the area, creating a greater and greater sense of unease for Sydney and her community. Under the guise of revitalization, it shows how gentrification perpetuates inequality and ramps up police brutality as developers find ways to shove out traditional populations, perpetuating racism on multiple levels.
Sydney becomes acquainted with a white neighbor, Theo, who buys a house on Gifford Place with his white girlfriend, Kim, before they split up romantically. As Sydney designs a historical tour around the neighborhood to make sure that the African-American aspects of its past are understood, Theo asks to join her as a photographer. When they delve into the past, they better understand the changes being forced upon Gifford Place by local developers and those moving into the neighborhood, all of whom seem to be in league with police officers. In becoming romantically attached to Sydney, Theo better understands her perspective on minorities being forced out of their homes by urban developers.
I was not expecting to find such an interesting combination of themes in a thriller. Having lived in many cities, I was glad to read a Black woman’s perspective on gentrification, one that will stay with me. In fact, this book approaches so many facets of gentrification’s problems that it becomes a history of its racism in Brooklyn and a polemic against it, along with a thriller as life on Gifford Place becomes increasingly creepy.
While genuinely interesting in some of its ideas, Cole tries to do too much and becomes uneven, notably hitting a moderate pace, slowing down, and then going from zero to sixty in a couple of seconds. It is underdeveloped in some areas. It tries to be history, sociology, suspense, and horror, without ever becoming a great example of any of these genres.
Also, the Black people in the book are normal, good neighbors, and almost every White person is overtly, criminally racist. It seems to be a mash-up of every Black person’s fears about not just what goes bump in the night, but also White prejudices, violence, and dismissal that bump up against them, especially in light of making way for gentrification.
If you want to see a rough cinematic equivalent to When No One is Watching, it would be Jordan Peele’s provocative, high-quality horror film Get Out, in which a white woman brings her Black boyfriend home to meet an increasingly eerie family with seemingly liberal values who end up displaying none of them. Yet Peele’s film is more complete within itself. It does not try to be an interesting history of African-American settlement in a city, a tale of neighbors helping one another, and an over-the-top Halloween-worthy horror story to boot. The pacing is very uneven in this book as a result of its author’s ambitions.
While genuinely interesting in certain ways, Cole’s When No One Is Watching tries to do too much. It tries to be history, sociology, suspense, and horror, without ever becoming a great example of any of these genres. Yet at least it is a conversation starter that takes on themes that thread through a sharp-tongued, middling thriller and make it memorable. Although it did not always make me suspend my disbelief, at least I will not forget it or its lingering sense of unease.