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The Boy at the Keyhole


The Boy at the Keyhole

Nine-year-old Samuel Clay lives on his family’s large estate in Surrey. What could be an idyllic childhood is instead one of loneliness and anxiety. His late father left behind insurmountable debt, and his mother has been gone for months, having left without saying goodbye and sending only a handful of postcards from America. Samuel is tended to by the housekeeper, a stern and strict woman named Ruth Tupper, who is the last of the family’s domestic employees. He misses his mother terribly and frets about the length of her absence, the scarcity of her postcards, and the reasons she chose to leave in the middle of the night without a farewell. And he grows increasingly hostile and tense under Ruth’s watchful eye, sharp tongue and rough hands.

As Samuel waits for his mother to return from her voyage to America in search of funds to save the family business, he becomes more and more uneasy about how she departed and his relationship with Ruth. He traces her apparent movements by pairing the postcards with the atlas that belonged to his father. And every day he pesters Ruth about when she will return and why she left in such a hurry, seemingly without a thought for him.

"This psychological thriller keeps readers guessing from the soft start, through the creepy build, until the end, and then surprises with some hard punches."

For her part, Ruth is stretched thin. She must let go of the maid and the groundskeeper, and is no longer allowed to draw on credit at local shops. She takes to baking for villagers to make ends meet for her and Samuel. When Samuel finds his mother’s precious jewelry missing, he accuses Ruth of theft but insists she had permission to sell them for much-needed money.

Though doors are locked and rooms are forbidden to him, Samuel begins searching the house for clues about his mother and her disappearance. His friend, Joseph, fans the flames of his fear by suggesting that Ruth may have committed murder. This slow-burn novel intensifies as Samuel is determined to learn the truth about his mother and about Ruth, the latter of whom works, sometimes quite violently, against him. What he ultimately discovers is devastating. What Giles does once our hearts are broken is first shocking, then chilling and totally unforgettable.

The brilliance and fun of Stephen Giles' debut work of adult fiction is the ambiguity and shades of gray. Is Ruth a dangerous villain? Is Samuel overly distressed? This psychological thriller keeps readers guessing from the soft start, through the creepy build, until the end, and then surprises with some hard punches. The writing style is brisk and stark, an interesting contrast to the fraught emotional aspects of the tale. Giles deftly handles his claustrophobic story, allowing readers just enough of the two possibly disturbed pole-star characters to draw them in close and still hold them at bay.

Overall, THE BOY AT THE KEYHOLE is a captivating examination of love, loyalty, loss and imagination.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 7, 2018

The Boy at the Keyhole
by Stephen Giles