A squeaky-clean honors student gets arrested for selling drugs. A gregarious old man vanishes in the middle of the night, leaving his beloved dog and his belongings behind. Longtime Black residents are disappearing from Gifford Place, and wealthy white people are moving in. Something is definitely wrong with this picture, and it’s worse than run-of-the-mill gentrification.
By now, many will have seen When No One Is Watching described as Rear Window meets Get Out. Those comparisons are shockingly apt. Alyssa Cole’s latest triumph incorporates elements of both psychological thriller and social horror. Its finale is a bit macabre, much like Get Out, and there is a romantic subplot as well, just as there was in Hitchcock’s masterpiece. But Cole’s story is also highly original. She is drawing directly from today’s turbulent social currents and grim realities, crafting a nightmare from everyday terrors, both large and small.
Through the story of one woman defending her home and her neighborhood, Cole dramatizes the economic displacement caused by racialized capitalism, as well as the petty skirmishes that take place between new settlers and old, between Black and white, on a daily basis in places like Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. There’s simply no one better equipped to distill the racial politics of this moment into intriguing and terrifying entertainment.
Perhaps the best evidence of Cole’s skill in this regard is the remarkable correspondence between a fictional event in the book and a real-life incident that occurred just miles away from where the book is set. In May, a white woman was walking her dog off-leash in Central Park (in violation of the rules). When a concerned Black birdwatcher asked her to leash her dog, she falsely accused him of threatening her and reported him to the police. The incident occurred many months after Cole had finished her manuscript, and yet the confrontation strikes a frighteningly similar chord as the one in her book.
A similar standoff occurs between the protagonist, Sydney, an African American woman who is a longtime owner of a brownstone on Gifford Place, and Kim, a “high-ponytailed,” Lululemon-wearing newcomer, who is white. Viewers of the Central Park video saw that Amy Cooper was the aggressor and that she explicitly used her racial identity to claim authority. Readers will find the same is true with Kim and Sydney. It’s all about social control. Kim has done something wrong and tries to get out of it by accusing Sydney of “making [her] feel unsafe” and, again just like Amy Cooper, saying, “I’ll call the police.” As Cole explained on Twitter, “it’s not because I’m prescient, it’s because this kind of power play happens all the time, in ways small and large, often from white people who don’t think they’re racist.”
Here, Cole actually exercises restraint. Though thrillers like Get Out tend to present heightened versions of reality until the grisly denouement, the tensions that Cole brings to life on the page are hardly exaggerated. The petty insults and indignities that occur on Gifford Place happen every day in shops and on corners throughout America. The book also includes snippets of discussions from a neighborhood forum called “OurHood,” which seems to be modeled on Nextdoor. The ending is a bit rushed, and some readers will question the need for some of the violence. Overall, though, this is a brilliant first foray into the genre. Cole leverages her strengths to great effect, incorporating history, biting social observation and even a little romance along the way.
Another element that distinguishes When No One Is Watching is its grounding in not just present-day politics but history. Cole made her name in historical romance, and it shows. The Brooklyn history she includes enriches and deepens the story, placing current events and the characters’ experience with systemic racism today firmly in context and conversation with the past. The story Cole tells is a disturbing one, but that doesn’t make it any less true.