In a 1970 interview at the American Film Institute, Alfred Hitchcock drew a sharp distinction between mystery, which he defined as “an intellectual process, as in a whodunit,” and suspense, “essentially an emotional process.” To illustrate, he described a scene in which four guys sit at their weekly poker game, unaware that there is a ticking bomb under the table. But the audience sees the bomb. They have information that the characters lack, and it’s that knowledge that makes the slow, deliberate pace of the game, the interruptions to open another beer or share a joke, so unbearably suspenseful. Our anxiety is fueled not by wondering who planted the bomb, but by our concern for the characters.
Perhaps that’s why local author Hallie Ephron’s latest book, “There Was an Old Woman,” is, like its predecessors, labeled “A Novel of Suspense.” In these simply plotted books, any astute reader sees the figurative bomb under the table. We figure out early on who the bad guys are, then spend the rest of the book worrying about the main characters, who lack the insight that we have so quickly gained.
In this novel, there are two hapless protagonists: Evie Ferrante, a curator at New York City’s Five-Boroughs Historical Society, and Mina Yetner, the elderly widow living next door to the house Evie and her sister, Ginger, grew up in. Evie is in the midst of preparing for an exhibit on four major fires in the city’s history, including a real 1945 incident in which a B-25 bomber flying in thick fog crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. Having barely escaped a fire in her own home as a child, Evie is particularly sensitized to this type of catastrophe, and blames her widowed mother’s alcoholism for it. So when she gets a call from Ginger saying that their mother is hospitalized, Evie greets the news with a blaze of long-smoldering resentment. And her anger at her mother’s dissolution only intensifies when she arrives at her childhood home in Higgs Point in the Bronx, and finds it filthy, fetid, and falling apart.
To her surprise, Evie finds comfort in Mina’s company, and is especially intrigued to learn that her neighbor was in the Empire State Building during the 1945 fire. Though creaky and nearly blind without her glasses, Mina is mentally sharp and self-reliant, resisting the unctuous attempts of her nephew, Brian, to move her to an assisted living facility. She has deep roots in her neighborhood, though it’s changing rapidly. Situated on the edge of a salt marsh, with a view of the Manhattan skyline, the property values are increasing dramatically. Now the modest, working-class homes are being razed, and as her neighbors die, they are being replaced by affluent professionals and financiers like her intrusive neighbor, Frank Cutler.
As Evie tries to clean up her dilapidated childhood home and reconcile with her dying mother, disturbing things start to happen. She finds large sums of cash, and discovers that her mother’s car has been sabotaged. And she isn’t the only bewildered one. Mina starts to wonder if she’s losing her mind. Keys and papers disappear; Frank tells her she has done bizarre things that she has no memory of.
In Ephron’s novels you can generally count on a few standard ingredients: a suburban setting, a series of coincidences that become ever more ominous, a more nuanced relationship between the female protagonist and other women than is typical in many mysteries, and a male love interest who is less than reliable. With its straightforward plot about real estate skullduggery, “There Was an Old Woman” remains true to that formula. Ephron’s novels are gripping because her characters are just real and nuanced enough to identify with. Ultimately, it’s compassion that makes us stay up late reading and, nose in book, miss our subway stop the next morning.
Julie Wittes Schlack, a Cambridge-based writer, can be reached at email@example.com.