A Noise Downstairs

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It doesn’t fit the bill of haunting or psychological, but it does evoke emotion. But anxiety and frustration are not likely what Barclay was going for.

It doesn’t fit the bill of haunting or psychological, but it does evoke emotion. But anxiety and frustration are not likely what Barclay was going for.

Centered around Paul Davis, your average suburban college professor with a so-so marriage who nearly dies after stumbling upon a co-worker on his way to bury a few bodies, A Noise Downstairs is billed as a psychological thriller that is sure to twist you in knots. It does the knots well, but I’m sure in the way Barclay was going for.

As Paul recovers from nearly dying and the shock of finding a friend to be a grotesque killer, he is on a sabbatical and having regular sessions with therapist Anna, who has some gray areas in her professional boundaries. At this wife Charlotte’s suggestion, he decides to dig into what makes his former friend tick, what made him a killer. To complete the idea, Charlotte brings home an antique typewriter to help spark her English professor husband’s motivation. 

It seems like a great idea, until the typewriter starts to send Paul messages. Creepy in itself, there is the extra layer here that the killer, dubbed the Apology Killer, forced his victims to type apologies on a coincidentally similar old machine. As Paul feels more and more detached and starts to question his own sanity, we also spend time with Anna and her father who seems to be suffering from some early dementia, another patient of Anna’s who has all the well known sociopathic traits, and friends and family of the murdered women.

The premise is good – though the haunted typewriter doesn’t quite do the trick as the haunting and creepy inanimate antagonist – but the details come together in an anxiety inducing way. There is too much information, and also not enough. Unlike other novels that have had great success with the  “unreliable narrator with a wacky twist” plot device, this one gives up it’s ghost far too early, and then leaves you hanging without a handhold. It is clear early on that Barclay is going for that “wham” moment, but the story then proceeds at a slow pace without any substantial developments. You know there is a big ole twisty bit coming and want desperately to play amateur detective, but there just isn’t enough. When the finale does come, there is surprisingly little shock given how little there was that pointed to it. Essentially, one big ball of frustration and anxiety, getting distracted and probably missing details because you are so focused on waiting for the shoe to drop.

In the end, A Noise Downstairs is a conundrum wrapped in an ice cream sandwich – the story itself isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it is somehow written in a way that drives some crazy emotion and just won’t let you stop until you know. Not Barclay’s strongest, but I’m still frustrated by it a week later so I’ll chalk it up to a tally in the win column.

The Details:

A Noise Downstairs
Linwood Barclay
Narrated by George Newbern
Published July 12, 2018

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