When was the last time you stayed up late because you just had to finish a thriller? If you’d asked me that question a couple of weeks ago, I probably would have reached back to the first time I read Ken Follett’s “Eye of the Needle” or Geoffrey Household’s “Rogue Male” — two classic World War II suspense novels. Now, though, I’d add the name of a completely different kind of novel: Heather Gudenkauf’s “Not a Sound,” a woman-in- trouble tale that kept me reading till the birds started chirping.
There’s minimal blood and zero sexual depravity in Gudenkauf’s psychological suspense story (although there is a faithful dog vulnerably trotting around just to amp up the anxiety). In terms of style, think Mary Higgins Clark or Lisa Scottoline, accented with a dash of inspiration from that vintage Audrey Hepburn movie “Wait Until Dark.” That’s the one where Hepburn plays a blind woman who outwits the bad guys by forcing them to meet her on her own turf: namely, her apartment, which she’s thrown into pitch-black darkness by breaking all the lightbulbs. (As I said, this is a vintage movie.)
Like Hepburn’s character, Gudenkauf’s heroine, Amelia Winn, is physically challenged: a near fatal encounter with a hit-and-run driver destroyed the tiny bones and neural pathways of her inner ear and rendered her profoundly deaf. It’s been two years since that accident, which caused lots of collateral damage. Amelia’s marriage crumbled and she lost her job as an emergency room nurse. She fell into depression and alcoholism and lost contact with her beloved stepdaughter. In retreat from the world, Amelia moved out to a fishing cabin owned by her father deep in the Iowa forest.
There, slowly and painfully, Amelia has willed herself back to life. She’s sworn off alcohol and has become adept at sign language and lip reading. On the morning the story begins, she has an interview lined up for a clerical job at a cancer center. Perhaps best of all, Amelia has gained a companion in Stitch, a 3-year-old, 55-pound Slovakian rough-haired pointer who serves as her hearing dog. Stitch and Amelia begin every day with exercise and, so, on this brisk fall morning, they’re paddling together on the river. But when Stitch jumps off the paddleboard, swims to the riverbank and freezes in place, that peaceful riparian interlude shatters.
Floating beneath a watery carpet of leaves is a corpse. As a nurse, Amelia has seen plenty of dead bodies, but her professional cool cracks when she looks down into the blue eyes of Gwen Locke, a former nursing colleague and friend. Amelia summons the police on her cellphone and waits in silence, depending on Stitch to alert her to danger. As the shock wears off, Amelia recalls that Gwen had tried several times to reach out to her, most recently in a birthday email in which Gwen mentioned “a conflict at work.”
Curious, Amelia begins asking questions about Gwen’s work situation — an investigation complicated by Amelia’s profound deafness. Gudenkauf, who identifies as “hearing-impaired,” vividly depicts the obstacles of communicating and sussing out information, particularly over the phone. Here’s Gwen, for instance, making a simple call — with the aid of a captioned phone — to reschedule that job interview:
“I take a deep breath. Though it’s hard to explain, the anxiousness I feel when I speak into the receiver rivals that of having to sleep in a dark room. ‘Yes, hello,’ I begin, concentrating on modulating the volume of my voice and the enunciation of my words. . . . Because I can’t hear myself I don’t know how loudly or softly I’m speaking. Usually I rely on clues from the facial expressions of the listener — like if they lean in to hear me better or if they cringe because I’m too loud for the situation. Talking by phone takes away those physical cues.”
As Amelia’s investigation widens, sinister stuff starts happening out at her cabin: Shadowy figures lurk in the forest; someone breaks in and leaves a cruel calling card. Even something as routine as Sketch’s nighttime potty breaks become knuckle-biting, since Amelia must unlock her door and usher Sketch out into the dark. Meanwhile, the murder suspects multiply: Amelia’s angry ex-husband; her distant neighbor who wants to turn the river into an outdoor adventure center; even Amelia’s new sort-of boyfriend.
Which brings us to the excellent climax of this inventive suspense story. Here’s a tiny snippet of the beginning of the end. Amelia is hiding on the second floor of her cabin:
“I try to steady my breathing, close my eyes and lay my cheek against the hardwood and spread my fingers flat against the floor.
He knows I can’t hear him. But I feel each step he takes. I feel the tremor in my jaw first. It’s barely perceptible, but it’s there. It slowly spreads to my fingers. I try to be patient. The vibration grows stronger with each of his footfalls. He’s coming.”
Try to go to sleep after reading that paragraph. Just try.
Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Heather Gudenkauf
Park Row. 352 pp.$15.99