Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Behind Closed Doors
by B.A Paris
St. Martin’s Press
2016, ISBN 978-1-250-12100-4
Behind Closed Doors is a psychological thriller in the tradition of Emma Donoghue’s Room and John Fowles’ The Collector, though the plot is quite different. B.A. Paris’s novel opens with a dinner party hosted by Grace and Jack Angel for two other couples. In their thirties, recently married, Jack and Grace met at a band concert in London’s Regent’s Park. Grace was there with her seventeen year old sister, Millie, who has Down’s Syndrome. When Millie got up and started to dance, a “perfect gentleman” rose, held out his hand to her, and waltzed with her. Delighted at his kindness, Grace was soon swept off her feet by the future Jack offered her. A lawyer who specializes in defending battered wives, Jack promised Grace her dream home to share with Millie, and convinced her to give up her job with Harrods to be a full-time homemaker.
This information is presented smoothly as dinner party conversation with the guests, who are convinced that the couple’s life together is perfect: “There were so many ‘perfects’ ringing round the hall as Jack close the door behind them that I know I’ve triumphed,” says Grace to herself.
Throughout the first chapter, however, there are hints that all is not well. Of the lily she received as a hostess gift, Grace hopes that Jack will plant it in the garden where she can see it from her bedroom window. Readers’ suspicions are aroused. Doesn’t she go out in the garden? Then, while preparing a dish in the kitchen, Grace feels nervous that she won’t be able to “pull everything off”, but reminds herself that “fear is my enemy.” Later we learn that the house has a complicated alarm system and steel shutters that “are often kept shut during the day.”
When Esther, one of the guests, seems aloof and suspicious – perhaps of her hosts’ perfection – Grace thinks, “If I were Esther I’d be wary of me too.” The discordant notes make us wonder if Grace is a “madwoman in the attic” trying hard to prove her normality by hosting the party. Or is something more sinister going on?
The chapters alternate between Present and Past. Sometimes an event occurs in the “present” which leaves us puzzled, but it is explained in one of the next “Past” chapters. One never gets lost in these time shifts, thanks to the chapter labelling, but one is often confused. By keeping us uncertain, author E.A. Paris is making us experience something of what Grace is going through.
While Grace and Jack are the co-protagonists, with Grace the first-person narrator, the most interesting character, and one essential to the plot, is Millie. Despite her intellectual limitations, she knows bad behaviour from good, and has a strong love and loyalty toward Grace. (The sisters’ parents move to New Zealand soon after Grace and Jack get married. They are also remote in that they never wanted children, especially one who is developmentally delayed, and are glad to have Grace, who is nearly twice Millie’s age, take responsibility for her.)
Millie amuses her caregiver and others by saying that she likes Jack, and then, in the same breath, that she hates “Jorj Koony” – her mispronunciation of “George Clooney”. The question as to why she would hate George Clooney, and why she links the two men in her mind as a Jekyll and Hyde, keep us reading. Millie is an Agatha Christie fan, a fact that eventually becomes significant.
The recurring appearances of Esther are intriguing. Although Grace rarely responds to her overtures of friendship, she keeps inviting Grace to girls’ lunches out and lends her a book. At Millie’s birthday party, Esther and her children give Millie a red jewellery box to harmonize with the colour of her room. Esther is under the impression that her room is red, but Millie’s favourite colour is yellow. There is a red room in Jack and Grace’s house.
While Grace, Millie and Esther are well-drawn, Jack is less so, and could have been portrayed more thoroughly and deeply. Nevertheless, Behind Closed Doors is deeply disturbing. We read on to see what diabolical twist comes next, and to find clues as to how the victim will defeat the villain.
About the reviewer: For information on Ruth Latta’s four mysteries and other novels, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com