Behind Closed Doors by BA Paris was a difficult book to read. It was not complexity that made it difficult; it was content and awareness. From almost the first page we are aware that all is not right with Jack and Grace Angel, although they are often described as perfect. He’s perfectly handsome, has great taste, good manners, and he is such a successful lawyer that he has never lost a case.
Grace is obviously pretty, although we don’t hear an awful lot about this. She is a good cook and hostess. Her home with Jack is well decorated and she is devoted to her much younger sister, Millie, who has Downs Syndrome and who currently resides at a great school in North London.
How do we know that there is something not quite right in all this stylish perfection? There are small details that give us the beginnings of our goose bumps. At the dinner party which opens the book Jack and Grace entertain two couples – Esther and Rufus who Jack just met, and Diane and Adam who they have known for a while. The question is raised of how Grace manages to stay so very thin despite a seemingly ravenous appetite. When Esther presents Grace with a box of very expensive chocolates Grace seems to be worried that if she doesn’t open them before her guests leave she won’t get any. Grace is very fearful that there might be noticeable flaws in her meal. Jack makes sure that no one is ever alone with Grace. Grace doesn’t seem keen on showing the pictures from their honeymoon in Thailand – and more, much more. In fact Millie dislikes Jack until Grace gets Millie to transfer her dislike to Jorj Koony (George Cooney).
Since I sense right from the beginning that all is not as it appears it fills me with a sort of unspecified dread. It also makes me question whether the author should tip her hand so early. Sometimes I like obvious symbols but even the last name Angel doesn’t really work here. Somehow John Irving always carried this off. The stuffed dog Sorrow that kept popping up in Hotel New Hampshire is one of the best examples ever of an obvious symbol that works. But Paris is not John Irving. There is just not enough subtlety here. But even so I could not stop reading (even though I wanted to) and I hoped all the while that somehow all would be well.
We know situations like this really happen. In my small city there is a famous, fairly recent case of Mr. Jankowski, living in an upper middle class suburb, who built a secret underground room behind his basement. He was a serial kidnapper who kept a woman locked in a prison-like cell where he had complete control over her. When he was done with one victim he kidnapped another. He got away with this several times. There were also the three woman held prisoner for a decade or more who escaped from their captor perhaps because he sort of let them. There are other stories like this, fortunately somewhat rare, but even one such imprisonment is too many.
Most of Behind Closed Doors is spent showing how Jack managed to turn an independent woman into the fearful woman that Grace became, incapable of finding a way out, and how he was able to have such a seemingly normal social life. Could anyone actually have so much control over someone that they did not have to keep their prisoner physically locked up? A good part of the book is also spent telling us what happens to Millie, as Millie is the emotional blackmail Jack uses, and Millie is the one Jack really wants.
This novel is chilling and sadly all too believable, but I think the writer’s skills were not quite up to the task of dealing with the subject matter. It’s as if the entire book is written to tick off a check list the author has created of the ways Jack was able to fool Grace and everyone else. However, there is a part of us that likes to know how such a captivity could take place in such a crowded world and the topic is an important one. The book is not long and reads fast, but you will have to decide for yourself whether you want to tackle this one.