A very entertaining and surprisingly well-clued mystery marred only by its ridiculously cartoony villain.
Originally published in 2019
No visitors. No nights spent elsewhere. No disturbing the rich and famous residents. These are the rules for Jules Larsen’s new job apartment sitting at the Bartholomew, one of Manhattan’s most high-profile buildings. Recently heartbroken—and just plain broke—Jules is taken in by the splendor and accepts the terms, ready to leave her past life behind.
As she gets to know the occupants and staff, Jules is drawn to fellow apartment sitter Ingrid, who reminds her so much of the sister she lost eight years ago. When Ingrid confides that the Bartholomew has a dark history hidden beneath its gleaming façade, Jules brushes it off as a harmless ghost story—until the next day when Ingrid seemingly vanishes.
Searching for the truth, Jules digs deeper into the Bartholomew’s sordid past. But by uncovering the secrets within its walls, Jules exposes herself to untold terrors. Because once you’re in, the Bartholomew doesn’t want you to leave….
Things have not been going well for Jules. After losing her job, her apartment and her boyfriend in a single day, she has been surviving thanks to the generosity of a friend. With just a few hundred dollars left in the bank, she replies to an ad looking for an apartment sitter and is astonished to find that the property is a two-floor luxury apartment at the Bartholomew – a storied property supposed to be the home to some of America’s most famous figures. When she learns that she will be paid $12,000 to live there for three months, it seems too good to be true.
While Jules initially ignores some red flags it soon becomes clear that something weird is going on. Suspicion turns more serious following the disappearance of a fellow resident. Ignoring some pretty clear directives from the property manager, Jules decides to investigate…
The most striking element of the book is its setting, the Bartholomew. Sager does an excellent job of giving us a potted history of this fictional building, explaining its reputation and also the draw it holds for Jules. It is not just a matter of the building’s famous yet secretive clientele or that its exterior had appeared in countless movies but that it was the setting for a book she cherished while growing up – a rags-to-riches story where a girl moves to Manhattan and finds romance and success.
Sager does a good job of setting the scene without falling into the trap of cataloging the furnishings. The few detailed descriptions we get however are both interesting and meaningful. I was particularly drawn to an idea he returns to several times throughout the novel of the wallpaper in a part of the apartment, using it as a metaphor to explore Jules’ changing feelings about the space as we go from fantasy to horror narrative. These touches work nicely, feeding into some broader themes that the novel will develop such as how appearances can be deceptive, and help to make the building itself feel like a character within the novel.
Jules makes for a solid protagonist for this sort of story. Her background of short-term misfortune and a longer-standing sense of loss about the disappearance of her sister years before is arguably a little emotionally manipulative but it works, not only to build empathy with her situation but also to help explain why she overlooks the many red flags thrown up in her interview. Sager doesn’t try to make out that Jules is unaware of these issues – they are directly put to her by her best friend – but she overlooks them because she doesn’t have an alternative. She comes to the Bartholomew out of desperation and a desire to reinvent her life. It may be foolish but I felt that it was quite understandable and it helped me like her.
The novel takes the form of a slow realization and acceptance that something is wrong within the building. This is partly a matter of acknowledging some of those earlier red flags but the unexpected disappearance of Ingrid, another resident, becomes the catalyst for her to start an investigation. It’s an interesting problem and while concern escalates into fear rather quickly, I could understand why the circumstances surrounding that disappearance feel odd enough to prompt that worry.
While the key points of this mystery are clued, I should emphasize that the style does not emphasize deduction or reasoning but rather reads like a suspense story as Jules asks questions, forms alliances and places herself in danger through her prying. There are a few moments where I suspect the reader will be aware that she is making ill-advised choices but that is part of what makes it so compelling.
The secretive nature of the building’s clientele means that we do not spend much time with most of the other residents but there are a few that do stand out. One is the young and handsome Doctor Nick who lives next door and whose advice she seeks as she wants to learn more about the building. That relationship adds an element of flirtation and romance to the novel, though I would suggest that it is not worth reading this novel for that alone.
While several of the other guests and staff make an impression, none do so quite so much as Greta Manville – the author of that book which Jules was obsessed with. Their interactions are initially quite sparky but subsequently seem to grow warmer. It’s an intriguing relationship and I enjoyed trying to work out exactly who Greta was and why she behaves in the rather cold and brusque way she does at the start of the novel.
There are a number of secrets for Jules, and us as readers, to discover and I enjoyed much of the journey, even if it does venture into some pretty wild territory at points. There are certainly some fantastical ideas here but I was struck upon doing some research, that the main ideas hung together reasonably well. In fact, while Jules never really takes us back over the case, upon careful consideration I recognized the points in the novel where the appropriate clues were set up.
That is not to say that everything is resolved. The novel leaves one question unanswered and I am uncertain as to how deliberate that is meant to be. Were we meant to be uncertain or will there be a sequel some day? As far as I can tell this was conceived as a standalone so presumably the question is meant to linger. It’s not particularly satisfying as a narrative technique goes, but I understand what prompted it.
As much as I was entertained by the audacity of the idea here, I do think that the antagonist – once identified to the reader – becomes a rather broad and ‘colorful’ creation which undermines that premise a little. It certainly became hard for me to take that character seriously from that point onwards. Fortunately that coincides with the book taking a heavy shift towards focusing on its plot. And, happily, lie the book’s real strengths…