“The Boy at the Keyhole,” by Stephen Giles, is a thriller set in post-war England, at the manor house of a once wealthy family. Nine year old Samuel is a half orphan, his father dead from a tragic fall. His beloved mother has gone to the USA to try to secure investment capital in their failing business… or has she? As housekeeper Ruth gets increasingly dictatorial he starts wondering more and more whether his mother is actually in the USA… or if Ruth killed her so she can “swan about the place like Lady Muck.” If we can stomach this conceit, it’s a tightly written thriller about a hidden murder, or perhaps the spiraling insanity of a small child. Unfortunately the idea falls apart at the slightest bit of critical thinking.
The problem with Ruth wanting control of the estate is that there’s nothing to control or enjoy. A woman who never wanted children, or to care for children, is left the sole caretaker of a bright but weird (and friendless) little kid. I have a 9 year old. I love him dearly. He’s also difficult to take care of in that tedious yet needy way that all (most?) 9 year olds have. He talks endlessly about his subjects of interest and also refuses to trim his own strawberries because “he can’t” (he can). I feel for Ruth, I really do. As housekeeper she’s had to lay off all the staff except the gardener, who hasn’t been paid in quite a while. To make ends meet, this unpaid housekeeper is baking cookies and cakes to sell at market and pawning or outright selling the lady of the house’s jewelry. Ruth is doing all the work of running a big estate, and again, she’s doing it without pay… including being mortified by the butcher loudly refusing to sell her any more meat on credit.
It makes sense for young Samuel to wonder if his mother is actually in the USA or if Ruth killed her, hid the body, and is the queen of the castle. To the reader, however, that question is easily answered. No. Ruth stands to gain nothing by killing the lady of the house, a woman who treated her well.
I suppose we could be enthralled by the story of a little kid spiraling into madness, but again, Samuel has reasons for believing what he believes. Nine year olds have very active imaginations and Samuel is fairly isolated, for some reason having only one friend.
This novella (it isn’t the length of a novel) has a promising conceit but fails utterly to live up to that promise. It’s a fast read, but an empty one… it left me longing for Shirley Jackson and Daphne Du Maurier, two authors Giles is compared to. This book left me sad for the put upon Ruth, trapped as caretaker for a small child and an aging estate, and for Samuel who apparently isn’t wanted by anyone, family or otherwise.