Ever since Gone Girl, I’ve been waiting for the next great creepy relationship book with a twist. There’s just something about a gripping story in which an attractive façade disguises true, shudder-producing evil. The key to a successful story like that, though, is that its dangers need to be shocking, and its pretty surface needs to be at least passingly believable—we need to be horrified that such evil can live unquestioned in plain sight, and feel the emotional claustrophobia of the situation.
Here’s where Behind Closed Doors fails. We’re introduced to a successful 40-year-old lawyer, the ironically named Jack Angel, who has built his career defending domestic abuse victims. He is smooth, drop-dead gorgeous, and unmarried, and (we later find out) he has built a very pretty house of horror with metal security shutters on all of the downstairs windows on spec. After all, who knows when you’re going to run across the ideal prey? He’s been a creep since he was 13 years old and killed his mother—maybe. But apparently since then he’s gone regularly to Thailand to fulfill his nonspecific terrifying fantasies that don’t include sex with vague, nameless people, as one can apparently do with impunity in Thailand. It seems that he’d really like to up his game, though, and ideally move his horror show closer to home, for convenience. After all, he went to all of that trouble, building the house.
Fortunately for Jack, he eventually happens upon Grace, a young, successful, beautiful, globe-trotting professional woman with ridiculously irresponsible parents and a sister, Millie, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. He courts Grace and quickly wins her devotion by being nice to her sister. They marry hastily, Jack bizarrely skips out on the wedding night, and the next thing Grace knows, she’s in Thailand on her honeymoon, locked outside day after day on a hotel balcony, unable either to go to the bathroom (which I found to be the most chilling part) or to make anyone believe that her brand-new husband is a raving lunatic, despite her best efforts. But then, a thriller that can do no better than “My experience … was made even worse by the knowledge that when Jack wasn’t with me, he was exhilarating in someone else’s fear” is no thriller at all.
When the newlyweds return to the US from this idyllic (for one of them, anyway) wedding trip, Jack continues to hold Grace hostage. Every day, as Jack goes off to work, he locks Grace in an empty room for the day with nothing to do. If Grace somehow displeases him, she is forced to miss a weekend of visitation at Millie’s special boarding school. (Apparently, no one from Millie’s school finds it odd that previously devoted Grace would go almost two months without visiting her sister.) But the real threat is that once Millie graduates, Jack is planning to bring her to live with them and have his totally unspecified nonsexual but terrifying way with her, somehow feeding off of Millie’s fear, which Grace finds too frightening to even contemplate. He puts together a secret red room for Millie (despite the fact that her favorite color is yellow—the horror!) in the pretty house’s basement and decorates it with portraits of battered women that he forces Grace (a very, very amateur painter) to paint as a form of torture. When Grace has been particularly uncooperative, he punishes her with the ultimate form of torture, by making her … sit in the red room looking at the awful portraits she’s painted. The couples with whom he makes her socialize on the weekend and for whom she’s forced to bake perfect souffles have no idea of the anguish Grace is enduring, because she has no way of saying anything—Jack has cut off all access to pens.
As Millie inches closer to leaving her boarding school and coming to live permanently with Jack and Grace in the menacing red room, Grace finally feels the need to take action. Grace’s conundrum is that although she desperately needs to get away from Jack, she knows that in everyone else’s view, he’s Prince Charming. So whatever she plans to do needs to hold up against the judgment of the outside world. In unbelievable fashion, Millie herself hatches a surprising plot, giving Grace an unexpected tool. (What luck that Millie had been recently listening to Agatha Christie audiobooks!) Grace then creates her own elaborate plot and lays the groundwork for carrying it out by demanding a glass of whiskey every night in her prison room. For some reason, once she really puts her foot down, Jack is happy to share a whiskey with her night after night—whew! Thank goodness! Because without that poor decision on his part, Grace is never going to be able to carry out her plan to get out of her empty room and save Millie from the miserable fate of Jack feeding off of her fear in undefined but nonsexual ways!
Author B. A. Paris just doesn’t seem to be able to dredge up the kind of ickiness needed for this kind of story. And there’s really no shame in not having a sick, twisted mind—it just means less fun for the rest of us. With characters and plot that have little grounding in reality, the cringe-worthy questions the book asks on its cover—“The perfect marriage? Or the perfect lie?”—beg for a third option: The perfect dud.