When No One is Watching – Alyssa Cole

I enjoyed Cole’s writing style, characters, and concept, as well as the engaging historical information about Black-owned real estate in Brooklyn with a nice little nod to Weeksville, a place HIGH on my list of NY destinations when travel starts again. Sydney’s neighborhood is gentrifying a little TOO fast, in ways that seem explicitly sinister. Who is behind the buyouts? Why are longtime friends and neighbors unexpectedly absent, some to see relatives, some sold and moved without a word? Why is Theo, a white guy who moved to Gifford Place with his girlfriend, trying to ingratiate himself with Sydney and the neighbors who still own their brownstones? What’s up with the pharmaceutical company that bought the grounds of a former medical center in the neighborhood to engage in Opioid addiction research? This is a psychological thriller, but Cole’s way of creating tension is occasionally abrupt and doesn’t flow with the story or move it forward (whether to a red herring or the truth). Some of it is well-integrated, like the phone calls for Sydney’s mother, who is in assisted living, or the persistent efforts to get Sydney or her mother to sell her home. The usual thriller issues of who Sydney can trust and who is no friend to her are present and effective. It’s the oddball menacing activities that just don’t make sense, like a canceled Uber ride that could have led to a sensibly menacing experience or a bottle of wine that maybe had issues but it’s not clear what the point was or how it connects to the larger story. There is some great humor in the book and deftly drawn old folks in the neighborhood. I like that Sydney is going through depression from a divorce and other things and that Cole explores what it means to be depressed. I love that, after going on a historic tour about her neighborhood– that focused exclusively on the original white occupants of Gifford Place– Sydney actively researches and plans to hold a tour that focuses on the history of the Black community/homeowners that currently face displacement. Cole does some great work educating us on redlining excluding loans in Black neighborhoods and and restrictive covenants forbidding selling to Black families. She also covers early voter registration laws that required people to be property owners in connection with these measures that prevented African Americans from buying homes. There are villains that make sense ultimately, some obvious, others less obvious. There, too, the clues could have been woven in more as to some of the less obvious bad folks. It’s not that they did not make sense as villains, but that there should have been earlier hints about particular people and not just general observations about classes of people. Cole is definitely an entertaining writer and storyteller. I plan to look over her prior books and buy some more and I look forward to her perfecting her psychological thriller genre. She is “almost” there.

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