A Knock at the Door by T. W. Ellis

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Alfred Hitchcock once said ‘I enjoy playing the audience like a piano’.  He meant that in the best possible way, of course, and it succinctly anticipates what T W Ellis has achieved in his first psychological thriller.  There are enough twists and turns in this story to engage the most jaundiced of readers of crime thrillers.

Jem and Leo are a couple living in an isolated house near a small town in New York State.  Leo is a sommelier and, it appears, a very successful one.  Jem is a yoga teacher.  One morning just after Leo has left to fly to London for business, there comes an ominous knock at the door.  Two FBI agents have arrived and tell Jem that her husband Leo is not who he says he is.

From that moment, a thrilling story unfolds in real time.  The subsequent events take place over a period of twenty-four hours – from 8.01am one day to 8.01am the following day.  As can be imagined, the pace of the story does not flag for a moment.  Chapters are headed with the time – as in 8.01am and 9.23am and so on.  This device in addition to the novel’s short sharp sentences create a sense of urgency and almost pulls the reader on.  An example follows:

I put my hands on my hips.

He gestures with his hands, wondering what I am doing.

Go, I mouth.

He frowns.  Shakes his head.

I shrug in defiance.  [83]

Characters are introduced but almost none – only two exceptions – is who they claim to be; this further builds suspense which at times is almost palpable.   As in the best thrillers, the doubt about whether anyone is who they claim to be and, even more importantly whose side they are on, continues to the very end of the novel.

Of course, with such a fast-paced story, there is little time or space for any character or backstory development.  The reader may have many questions about the characters – such as why Trevor lives alone in the backblocks of New York State and seems so knowledgeable about the functioning of secret government agencies; and why could Rusty – the local [female] police chief with a wayward daughter and a demented mother – ‘stare into Heidi’s eyes all night long’ [288].

But there is no time for such distractions – the story is demanding attention and is moving quickly on.

To reference Alfred Hitchcock again, in his films he used the ‘MacGuffin’ device – ‘an object, device, or event necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself’.  T W Ellis uses a similar device – a thumb drive – but the reader does not know what is on it nor why it is so important but it is clearly of great significance to some of the characters.  Awareness of the thumb drive comes late in the story and its sudden appearance goes some way to explaining the motivation of at least four of the characters – but what is on it and why it is so critical for it to be found?  These questions are answered – and partially at that – only at the end of the novel.

It is almost a cliché to say that a book was read in one sitting or ‘I couldn’t put it down’.  But, this is one book which almost demands to be read all the way through at one time.  This is partly due to the story unfolding in real time; and partly due to the constantly changing perspective – who is telling the truth, who are really the ‘good guys’, who really knows what is happening?  As one character says of another:

But mostly he’s a pathological liar, and I’m thinking you’re starting to work that last part out for yourself by now. [303]

This is a book which delivers exactly what it intended to – a psychological thriller full of twists and turns which grips the reader from the beginning.  Readers should not expect any more than that.

T.W. Ellis is a pseudonym for Tom Wood – a full-time writer who now lives in London.  As Tom Wood, he is the author of the Victor novels about an antihero assassin.  A Knock at the Door is his first psychological thriller.

A Knock at the Door

[2020]

by T.W. Ellis

Hachette

ISBN 978 0 7515 7594 1

$29.99; 374pp

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