By Alyssa Cole
This book is scary.
It’s not just the nice, mostly elderly neighbors who keep disappearing without letting anybody know where they’re going.
And it’s not just the sections about Sydney Green’s mother’s desperate illness. Nor is it the abandoned hospital decaying in the midst of the neighborhood.
What’s scary is how easily — and legally — a historic neighborhood, cherished by its residents, rich and vibrant with social connections can be grabbed by those with more money, more power and more social status.
WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING is a nightmare story of gentrification in a historic now mostly black Brooklyn brownstone neighborhood. It’s one of the few fiction books I’ve ever read that has a page and a half of references that provided the background to the story.
Author Alyssa Cole’s story is part mystery — why are all the elderly and long-time neighbors disappearing, only to have their homes purchased by white upper middle class couples and families? and part horror story — what is happening the ancient sanatorium turned hospital that has stood hulking and abandoned on the street for decades?
When VerenTech Pharmaceuticals purchased the building, it pledged jobs and neighborhood improvements in return for concessions from the city as it turns the former hospital building into a high tech campus for research. But is that going to be good for the neighborhood?
Protagonist Sydney Green is besieged on all sides by her mother’s illness, money problems, the failure of her marriage 18 months earlier and her marginal job. She gains an unexpected ally in Theo, a white man who moved in with his girlfriend to the house across the street from Sydney’s. Shortly after he signed the papers committing himself to paying part of the mortgage on the house, he lost his job. Girlfriend Kim DeVries isn’t taking that well. In fact, she’s stepping out on him.
Cole alternates between Sydney’s point of view and Theo’s. She also uses a fictional app called “OurHood,” to help highlight the opposing perspectives of the neighborhood’s residents. There’s even a stronger contrast when a group of the newest neighbors splinter off into a private group where they can talk bluntly about their black neighbors.
WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING is an engaging, suspenseful book. Toward the end it takes on a bigger than life horror story quality but that doesn’t take away from the underlying factual and historical basis of the story. The challenges of gentrification and the tragic unfairness of racism and discrimination in lending, city planning and real estate sales are well presented without getting in the way of the story.
Ultimately the gentrification is as much a horror as the secret work that VerenTech is doing at the old hospital.
WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING received the Best Paperback Original Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 2021.
About the Author: Alyssa Cole (1982 – )
Alyssa Cole writes historical, science fiction and contemporary romance novels exploring both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.
Her work includes the Loyal League trilogy, which takes place during the Civil War and her Reluctant Royals series, contemporary romances inspired by modern day royalty. Her book, A EXTRAORDINARY UNION (2017), received multiple awards.
She often has political or activist elements in her books and characters involved in important political events in American history including the Civil Rights movement and the Civil War.
Her book, A PRINCESS IN THEORY, was named one of The New York Times most notable books of 2018. It’s protagonist a leader of a small, fictional African country that deals with advances and issues that Cole modeled on real nations of a similar size and geography.
She has been an advocate for increases the representation of black authors in the romance publishing industry.
Cole primarily lives on the Caribbean island of Martinique, but spends part of her time in New York City.