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Gargoyles and Secrets of the Rich

Author: Riley Sager

Life doesn’t give many second chances, so when it does, you take them and don’t look back. Jules Larsen has gone from rags to riches, transitioning from living on her friend’s sofa and mourning her broken relationship to apartment sitting in one of the most prestigious and exclusive buildings in Manhattan. There are a few catches though – no visitors, no staying elsewhere overnight, no pictures or social media about the Bartholomew and its famous denizens. It’s essentially isolation in the best of resorts and although the wallpaper appears to have glaring faces and the apartment makes strange sounds, everything else is ideal (even the stone gargoyle that greats her every morning.) For Jules, this is a dream come true, and this forced isolation may be what she needs to get her life back on track. Of course, that’s before her new best friend in the building mysteriously disappears. Before she hears the bad history of the illustrious Bartholomew, complete with everything from suicide to Satanism, before she discovers that the apartment sitters before her have vanished into thin air. Perhaps this enclave of the rich and regarded is more than it seems. Perhaps it really is too good to be true. Perhaps . . .

I’ve read three of Riley Sager’s current novels, starting with the anticlimactic Final Girls and reading this book simultaneously with The Last Time I Lied. Lock Every Door is certainly the best for its modern gothic zest, its noir-like feel, and its combination of mystery and light horror. Sager’s novels, although each totally different, all have a unique feel to them, a breathless quality, short and clipped, that is almost thriller-esque, offset by a paradoxical slow burn with multiple unreliable (or unaware) narrators and usually punctuated by a beyond belief finale that has that certain twist of the wrist meant to be clever. The main characters are all the same. Young women, oddly named, naïve and clueless, usually damaged by an event in their childhood.

In Final Girls Quincy Carpenter can’t remember, and yet can’t move on, from that long-ago cabin filled with teenagers and a serial killer who spared, you guessed it, only Quincy. In The Last Time I Lied, Emma Davis can’t get beyond an angry teenage fight and its aftermath during her first summer stay at Camp Nightingale. For Jules, the haunting memory is also of the past – specifically her abducted sister and the fruitless search for her. The haunting, as always with Sager, comes at the price of awareness and a certain sensibility. Jules walks straight into a situation. Eventually, though, the other apartment sitters leave enough hints and mumbled oddities to jump-start Jules’ sloppy investigation, but by then it’s far too late.

From there, the past and the present dance around each other. We are sure this missing family, who return as ephemeral flame ghosts, somehow tie into the sordid story of the Bartholomew. Yet, they are more for atmosphere and keeping our heroine at less than full power. Supporting characters, the apartment sitter above and the one next door, are wilier, yet equally stuck and far from prepared for the actuality of their enemy. In the end, the clues gradually and haphazardly pile up (ok, they appear conveniently), but as is the case with all good gut-punches, these revelations appear far too late and Jules is confronted with the final boss – one we hardly expected.

This twist end is classic Sager – he thrives on the serpentine, the unexpected, the flick of the wrist, and each of his books exhibit this trait completely. Yet, it never comes off entirely, with the possible exception of The Last Time I Lied. In Lock Every Door, the ending is certainly good, conceptually, but the adrenaline pump is somewhat hampered by the reality. Could such a thing really happen at all, even in the domain of fiction? What about all the moving parts, the flaws in the scheme, and Heaven help us, the pure villain prototype of some of those final stertorous speeches. I wanted to flow with it and believe it because the scheme was grand and had a beyond chilling aspect, but the villain needed to shut up (immediately) and the mechanics of the truth behind the Bartholomew required additional detail and realism.

While The Last Time I Lied had more believability and quality, although sadly not a smarter heroine, the atmosphere here made this my favorite Sager foray. I’ll never truly “get” the popularity of Sager’s books. They’re fun, but rapid and flawed, insubstantial and trying too hard to be entertaining and shocking. But here, at least, the elegant old building, the Bartholomew, was a solid specter that with its charm and escalated creep factor made me want to play along and ignore the less than perfect execution. Perhaps it just played to my favorite genres, mystery and horror, and this intermarrying made me a lot more susceptible to the magic of storytelling. Perhaps it was the easiness of Sager’s writing that made reading quick, effortless, as tempting as a snack you don’t really want but could eat anyway.

In the end, Lock Every Door is typical Sager. If you love him, this is the epic for you. If you, like me, are somewhere in the middle, neither loving nor hating, this is still the best of his current triumvirate. If you dislike Sager, then this particular installment will not change your mind.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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